Monday, September 22, 2014


In my head, and on paper, I had three goals for the 2014 Jimmy Fund Walk: (1) gather 100 walkers who otherwise would not have done the walk; (2) raise $60,000 for the Jimmy Fund; and (3) walk the Boston Marathon Route -- 26.2 miles -- with the friends and family who had joined Team Tara.

I had kept Teddy abreast of my progress every step of the way (Annabel is still too young, oblivious, and totally focused on her obsession with Batman to care). Teddy and I were both thrilled when, just last week, our team reached the 100 walker mark and passed $60,000 in funds raised. I was so proud of our dedicated and scrappy team, and I loved all that my son was learning about setting goals and having fun while working to achieve them. 

On Saturday night, however, in his typical pre-bedtime, completely overtired state, he started to cry. He was worried that I would not be able to finish the walk. I have no idea what caused him to get so upset about it but I was able to crack some jokes with him (at Brian's expense) and he fell asleep easily after that. 

Yesterday, after having walked 25 miles, I lay on my back replaying that conversation in my head. I told him not to worry about me; that I was tough and that I'd walk those 26.2 miles no matter what. Well, chalk that up to the long list of lies I've told my children. Because yesterday, I was not able to cross that finish line. 

When my family arrived to pick me up at mile 25, Teddy was hysterical. (Annabel was faking a whine to copy her big brother but really she was smiling, happy to see me and Brian.) Teddy sat next to me on a stoop on Beacon Street, the Citgo sign up a hill to our right, and hugged me tight. "Are you okay?" he asked me at least 12 times. 

"I'm fine buddy!" By that point, I was. And so I explained to Teddy the truth -- that sometimes, when I get really tired, I faint, and that I had to stop walking because I almost fainted. I still don't know if I should have told him all that, but I did. He was still wildly unnerved and I felt terrible about that. I also felt embarrassed -- mostly by the scene we made on the stoop, and by having thought that I was physically able to do something that I proved unable to do. 

On the way home, I lied again. When I couldn't hold back the tears, I tried to turn my head so that he wouldn't see. But he did. I told him that I had drank so much water that my eyes were watering. Dear Lord, what the hell was I thinking? This poor kid is going to be so confused. I better clear that one up today...Yes, I will do that. 

To be honest, I don't know exactly why I cried so much on the ride home. I think it was partly out of disappointment and embarrassment that I hadn't finished, and partly out of guilt that I had inconvenienced people the way I had. I hadn't been able to connect with friends and family in the last leg of the walk and at the finish line and I was also bummed about that. 

On the first leg of the walk, a few of my dedicated teammates mentioned what it would feel like to reach the finish line. "I honestly haven't even thought about it," I told each of them. I really hadn't. But on the car ride out of Boston, I did think about it. I thought about how awesome it would have felt. I was sad to have missed it. 

When we got home, the kids went out to play with their friends. Brian and I showered, and just sat for a while with my mom, my Aunt Helen, and cousin, Kirsten. It had turned into a gloomy night and none of us had the energy to turn the lights on. So we sat in a mostly dark house quiet and down. 

We dwelled in that gloomy place for a bit, until somehow, we got talking about all the people that walked that day. I told them about all the people I walked with for the first 13 miles -- about how I had met each of them, about all the new things I had learned about them, about how truly good they all were. I told them about a teammate who had joined and walked despite that she has been battling a terribly scary condition that has kept her largely confined to her house. I told them about Brian's hockey players who walked 13.1 miles together, and about my neighbors and other friends who joined us at a point in the walk when we all really needed fresh energy. I told them about the kids who had joined our team -- kids who have already given back more to this world than most people ever will. I told them about how great it was to see my friend who walked with her sister, and about their mother who walked five whole miles despite being in the middle of treatment for advanced stage breast cancer. We talked about all those who pushed strollers along the bumpy sidewalks and about my brother (who hates the heat) who carried his new puppy the whole way, while trying to corral our children. We talked about my kids' teachers who walked with their daughters and helped with our kids, too, while others left to tend to me. We talked about my uncles, cousins, colleagues, former colleagues, hockey friends, high school friends, CrossFit buddies, former students, fellow cancer survivors, and other dear friends who all wore their lavender shirts and walked together to help end all cancer. We cried a bit, laughed a bit more, and after some left-over pizza and a huge bowl of my most favorite dessert in the world (chocolate trifle -- thank you, Amy!) I, for one, felt so much better. 

We put the kids to bed it good spirits. Teddy didn't even cry. 

One person who wasn't able to walk yesterday was my best friend, Brianne. She is at the end of her second pregnancy so she helped with all sorts of things behind the scenes and her amazing husband, Seamus, covered the 26.2 miles for their family without seeming to break a sweat. Brianne made a surprise visit last night and she, Brian, and I sat and chatted about the day, all unable to move without groaning. I know that Brian is disappointed that he didn't get to finish and I know he will do it next year. But Brianne and I agreed that in 2015, God willing, we will do the 13.1 mile route. I'm already excited for it. 

A few astute friends of mine have reminded me of the quote I chose for the back of our team t-shirts. (In case you're curious, the white ribbon represents friendship.)

As I lay there yesterday realizing that I wouldn't be able to finish, I found such comfort in that message. Such real, sincere comfort. Because I know that over 100 people that I care so much about came together yesterday to fight -- with generosity and hard work -- for cancer patients. For me, that is what this was all about to begin with. 

The embarrassment and disappointment I felt yesterday fell away last night with a solid eight hours of sleep. What is now left is a heart so full of gratitude and appreciation that I tear up when I think about what we all achieved and how much fun it was to achieve it. 

Speaking of tears, tonight I plan to clarify with my innocent and misled six-year-old that I did cry on the way home yesterday and it wasn't because I drank a lot of water. I'll explain to him that sometimes we set goals that we don't achieve, but that often, there are awesome stories, inspiring teams, and terrifically strong individuals behind a "Did Not Finish." Most likely, he won't care much about my little life lesson, and he will just want me to play basketball or catch with him. But I think he'll store the clarification in a safe place, and that's the perfect ending for me. 

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

212 degrees

Anyone who is my Facebook friend undoubtedly has not been able to escape the fact that I am doing the Jimmy Fund Walk in 19 days. I admit, I'm kind of obsessed with it. Sure, I'm naturally inclined to over-enthusiasm, but this bout of it is serious.

I've restrained myself from writing about the walk here because I never want this space to be about money and I thought that if I wrote about the walk, it could start to feel like a solicitation. But tonight, I can't hold back. For the record, however, this post is not meant to request donations. This post is simply about the "c" word; not the "c" word those boys yelled from the blue Nissan Maxima on my 33rd birthday, but rather, the "c" word that rhymes with "pure." Yes, folks, this piece is about "cure."

*  *  *

One of my favorite books is a tiny little book that I stole from my mom. It's called, "212° - the extra degree." It's one of those books you would find near the cash register at a store full of cute gifts, one that I usually pick up, skim, and put back down.

The book begins by explaining that at 211 degrees, water is hot, but at 212 degrees, it boils. As the authors explain, this metaphor "reminds us that seemingly small things can make a tremendous difference." I believe that, both for good and for bad, and I believed it long before cancer. Cancer, however, has shown me nuances of this metaphor that I never before knew existed.

I have been working on a blog about the difference between "curable" cancer and metastatic cancer for over a year. I chip away at it, then I fail, and then I start over. Weeks later, I chip away some more and then I think that everything I've written is stupid and I delete the whole thing. I don't know that I'll ever finish that post, so I'll just write this lazily imperfect one instead. Because I have things I want to say even if I can't find the perfect way to say them.

First, let's set the facts straight. For all that my doctors and I know right now, I have been cured of my cancer. That means that it is possible that my cancer will never return and I will live to be 100. Even as I type those sentences, I force myself to go back over them. Cured of triple positive breast cancer. That would not have happened ten years ago. I know how lucky I am. I also know that luck can change.

I have written about friends of mine who are battling metastatic disease. This means that their cancer has spread throughout their body and that as of today, there is no cure. These friends include women who were in treatment when I was and women who were years out of it. It includes friends with the f-ing HER-2 protein on their cancer cells and friends who were HER-2 negative. Lest I underestimate the power of recent developments, I must acknowledge that there are great medicines that can shrink tumors and drastically slow their growth elsewhere. But there is no way to rid these bodies of cancer for good. 100 years old is not a possibility for them. At least, not yet.

I often think about the 212° book in a context one may not expect: sure, it sucks to have faced cancer up close -- that's 211° of a whole lot of shitty-ness. But metastatic disease? Well, that's 212° of scorching hell. Not all the time, I hope, but far too much of the time.

I cannot speak for people with metastatic disease and it would crush me to read blogs and other pieces that they have written. For this reason and others, I will make my goal tonight small -- I will write about just one reason that I think it must be so indescribably hard to battle metastatic disease.

It must be so hard because we do not live in a culture that focuses on the present moment. Sure, we can find people and classes and places that emphasize it, but mostly, we are surrounded by a much more future-focused culture -- one where we plan months or even years in advance, where we "look forward to..." and "hope the day goes by fast." Focusing on the present moment is kind of like trying to eat well -- it's possible, but we constantly feel like we're fighting the tide.

People with metastatic disease do not have the luxury of plans like others have. They don't have the luxury of floating with any tide. Instead, they have to struggle to stay in the present moment -- the only one they know is guaranteed -- because future moments feel (and perhaps are) dreadfully uncertain. I lived in this dark, dark world for a short time -- five weeks, to be precise -- before I learned that my cancer may actually be curable. Those five weeks felt like sheer torture. No matter how far away I get from that time, and no matter how rosily revisionist I can be in my memory-making, I will never forget that terror. And I will do anything I can to help people who have to live in it for the rest of their lives. Or until we find a cure.

I will walk 26.2 miles on September 21st because I want the peace that accompanies hope to replace the terror that accompanies uncertainty and worse, the inevitability of cancer over-taking the body. I want Dana-Farber researchers to reach (or contribute to others who reach) a cure for metastatic cancer -- not just breast cancer, but all cancers. In the meantime, I want Dana-Farber to provide the very best care for patients and family members who walk through their doors. I chose the Jimmy Fund Walk over other walks because Dana-Farber focuses half of its mission on research and half on patient care. I like that split. Because I know how scary it is to walk through those doors and I know how much relief comes with hope.

Yesterday morning, I walked eight miles -- a laughably short distance to prepare for 26.2. I woke up this morning so sore that I skipped my morning workout. As my hips and knees ached all day, I was reminded that 26.2 miles is not going to be easy for me or for anyone on our team who has set out to do it. But I also know that it's a small thing I can try to do to dial back the 212° of pain that metastatic cancer patients endure every day.

Ultimately, I know I've become more than a little bit obsessed with this walk. But maybe that one extra degree of obsession is just what we need. Maybe we're at 211° and at 212, we cure cancer.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Musings on the Planets

While hanging out (virtually) with other young adult cancer patients at a Dana-Farber event last week, I heard two bright and courageous men give very different perspectives on the question as to whether cancer has changed them.  One participant explained that his diagnosis of Stage 4 gastric cancer had changed him profoundly; that he will never be the same again.  Another participant described that his diagnosis of Hodgkin’s Lymphoma hadn’t changed him; that he is proud to be the same person that he was before cancer. 

I loved these two varying perspectives and honestly, could give examples from my own life to prove both of them to be true. At the same time, I’ve been thinking more about this and am desperate to find an answer that better suits me. On a work call this week, I unexpectedly got some help.

I had been speaking with a very experienced and successful professional ("Ken"), who knows that I have battled cancer. Ken was telling me that he doesn’t claim to know what it is like to have gone through what I have gone through. Ken told me, “It’s as if you’ve been to another planet and now you’re back.”  He admitted that he, like many others, has not seen that other planet, and thus, he cannot fathom what it is like to have returned from there.

Ken’s acknowledgement of the depth of my experience meant a lot to me. I’m not usually (ever?) drawn to people who claim to have all the answers and I am almost always drawn to those people who show by their actions that while they don't have all the answers, they still want to help. Ken is in the latter group. 

I thought about Ken's analogy for a second or two and almost broke my no-crying-at-work rule with my instinctive response.  "I love that anaolgy," I explained. "But the thing is that you never really get to go back."  Two years away from my diagnosis, I really don’t think that you do. 

Actually, I take that back. As I think more about it, perhaps it's possible for some people to return safely to the world that they knew before cancer. For many different reasons, however, I just don't think that I'm one of them.  

Still, I'm taken by this “visiting another planet” analogy, perhaps because the thoughts and emotions that this journey has evoked in me have, at times, been so dark and isolating and foreign that it often felt (or feels) like I’m on another planet.  These days, it's as if I have a commuting relationship between the two planets. One minute I'm lying on an ultrasound table wondering if the technician has found cancer in my liver or my pancreas and an hour later I'm riding bikes with my kids before logging into Citrix to start my work day. Well, that was this morning, anyways.

I'm starting to wonder if perhaps I'm someone who will float in a strange space between the two planets for a while longer, or maybe even, forever. I've met too many amazing people on the foreign planet to ever want to leave its atmosphere altogether, even if I am blessed with that choice. At the same time, I can't seem to plant my feet back in that world I lived in before August 8, 2012. A world where things like growing old were assumptions I made without any conscious thought.

I’ve thought a lot about how different people respond to a cancer diagnosis—how some people write about it for all the world to read while others don’t even tell some of the people closest to them until they've completed their treatment.  I’ve thought about how some people change lots of things after a diagnosis—their home, their spouse, their job, or their hobbies—while others hold onto what they already have even tighter. I've decided both of the participants are right.

Maybe cancer profoundly changes us by forcing us to move in the direction of who we really are and who we really want to be. For the lucky ones who were already there or heading that way, our world doesn't change much. But for others who had veered off-course somehow, cancer brings us back. 

Thursday, July 31, 2014

A Hangout

When I was diagnosed with cancer one year and 51 weeks ago, I had no interest in speaking with anyone in a similar situation. In fact, not only was I disinterested in the idea, but I was completely repulsed by it. I knew there were support groups at Dana-Farber and elsewhere for young adults with cancer but I wouldn't have gone to one for a million dollars. Even months later, when I learned that those support groups had helped men and women whose opinion I valued dearly, I maybe would have entertained the idea for a million dollars, but I probably still wouldn't have attended a meeting. I didn't want to hear anyone’s cancer story; not on the internet or in a book or in a conference room with trays of cookies. What if my cancer was more deadly than the woman's sitting next to me? What if a story was too sad for me to handle? Or, worst of all, what if a story ended badly? I couldn't deal with any of it. So I stayed away.

There were, however, certain stories that I did want to hear, or better yet, that I needed to hear to power my hope muscles. I craved stories of cures. Perflect plots. Happy endings.

That seems like such a long time ago. 

*   *   *

Yesterday during an extended lunch break, I participated in my first “Google Hangout.” It was an event sponsored by Dana-Farber’s Young Adult Program and lead by my therapy lady, Dr. Karen Fasciano. There were six young adult cancer survivors including myself and the other individuals whose Twitter handles and blogs are beautifully laid out in Bret Hoekema's most recent blog linked HERE.

I hadn’t thought much about the event leading up to it, but I haven’t stopped thinking about it ever since.

You know that Maya Angelou quote that I’ve included here at least twice before? The one about how people will forget what you did and what you said but they will never forget how you made them feel? That’s a great quote for yesterday.

Although I tried to take a few notes to write down all of the brilliant insight this group of young adults provided, I eventually gave up. Because I found myself nodding and agreeing with almost every single point that was shared. I found myself in awe of these men and women’s eloquence, honesty, and strength. Of the passion they so clearly have for life.

Throughout the program, I had this feeling inside me that is difficult to describe. I’d label it, “connection,” if I had to pick a word. It was an awkward thing because, at least in this case, it was a mix of joy, relief, anxiety, sadness, fear, purpose, and hope. And I don’t include any of those words without powerful examples in my mind to back up each of them.

Yesterday’s program taught me several things, including how differently I feel around other young adult cancer patients now as compared to the several months after my diagnosis. I am no longer repulsed by their stories, but rather, drawn to these individuals like long lost friends. I thought about that more after we all hung up. Why did I feel so connected to these people?

Now, I know partly why. Because they get it. What’s “it?” you may ask. To be honest, I don’t really know. Maybe "it" is about expecting life then, all of the sudden and for no explainable reason, facing death. Maybe "it" involves reluctant acceptance, or paralyzing desperation, or heart-throbbing hope. Or maybe "it" is about the realization that if we are open only to the perfect story, then we will miss lots of real-life stories that are better, way better, despite when the ending may come.

Hanging out, if only virtually, with young adults who get it was a true gift. And even if I don't get what "it" is, that's okay. Because I bet they do.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

The Third Law of Motion

This time last year, August 8th loomed in the distance like a big scary monster. That first anniversary of my diagnosis felt huge; like make-me-choke-up-the-second-I-thought-about-it huge.

This upcoming August 8th is, in most ways, so much smaller. I’m sure that if I thought about it, I could make it into something much bigger—the abominable snowman, perhaps—but it would be just that—imagined. At my core, I don’t have overwhelming apprehension (or pride) for the anniversary like I did last year.

The truth is, however, that my fear and apprehension has been diverted to a different place this year. This year, it’s wrapped up in my thoughts for the women I know battling metastatic disease. It’s wrapped up in my anger and angst that such good and young people like Kristin, Meghan, "Monica," Marisa (who you may not know yet), and countless others have to endure what they have to endure. It’s not about a date anymore. It’s about that “M” word.

Isaac Newton’s third law of motion tells us that every action has an equal but opposite reaction. Life as a cancer survivor may prove that principle as well as any science experiment ever could, for me at least. For example, I could take last weekend.

Brian, the kids, and I had been looking forward to last weekend for months. My future sister-in-law’s family was hosting an engagement party for their "little girl" and her fiancé (my brother). It would be held at a house on the beach that Lauren’s step-father essentially built with his bare hands. We were all so excited that we bought new outfits (Teddy, a shirt with a collar and Annabel, a dress to substitute for her Batman t-shirt). Our kids absolutely adore Sean and Lauren so needless to say, this was going to be an event.

Lauren's family (and Lauren, of course) are amazing; just the kind of family I would wish for my brother to marry into. Her family focuses on all the right things—they work hard but they have a vibrant life outside of their jobs; they smile a lot, laugh a lot, and don’t take each other too seriously. Most of all, they love each other with a tangible sort of love, and they live their lives untainted by ugly things like greed, image, or jealousy. It’s an awesome thing, and I was so excited to celebrate the engagement of two people that I love so much.

The party was everything we had anticipated and more. We took our shoes off on the lawn and in the sand, we drank cold soda and sangria, danced and sang, ate lots of pasta and chocolate, and enjoyed each other’s company in the most sincere and relaxed sort of way. It was precious, the kind of precious that you want to bottle up and carry around with you forever.

An extra sweet part of the day for me was that I didn’t think about cancer almost at all. It was such a welcome and unexpected respite. I just took photos, lots of photos, and soaked up the summer night.

That was the “action.” The truly beautiful action.

The next day, came the reaction.

Granted, before cancer, I would have had the blues after a night as special as Lauren and Sean's engagement party. But cancer changed those blues into something different. It's not so much a sadness anymore as it is a desperate ache for more. More gatherings of the people I love. More singing 4 Non Blondes on the porch. More time.

I know myself enough to know what I can do to make tough times easier, so after the party, I put my sneakers and some exercise clothes by the door of our hotel room. I planned to get up before anyone else woke and go for a run. Running tempers my anxiety and heartache like few other things can and I knew it was a good idea to start the day off with some endorphins flowing.

But plans are just plans. I woke up at 8am (very late in the world of parents with young kids) and by that time, I had missed my running window. So I lay in bed next to Annabel who looked as beautiful as ever. And I felt love so deep that it hurt.

After enjoying a breakfast buffet that was big enough to feed a small army, we headed home. For the first part of the ride up I-95, all was good. Teddy, Brian, and I continued our game of word association and Teddy recited the string of about 70 words that we had put together the day before. We were quite impressed. World, countries, United States, Boston… No doubt, the kid has a good memory, and we laughed at every fourth word that was somehow associated with bums or boogers (Annabel loves her potty talk and we were in the mood to laugh about it so we did).

We stopped to do some shopping and when we got back into the car, for some reason, the reaction hit. I felt tired and my back felt sore. I thought I felt cancer in my neck. It was a serious Red Alert. I tried to fight the fear and I did, externally at least. No one would have suspected a thing until I did something I rarely ever do—I fell asleep. I basically worked myself into such a mental frenzy that I resorted to my meditation techniques to calm myself down. All I do is pay attention to my breath going in and out of my body and low and behold, I dozed off doing that.

When we got home, I woke up feeling frazzled. I hate the feeling of waking up from a nap, which is part of why I never do it. Our house was a mess, Teddy and Brian were leaving for a trip the next day, and I was feeling lost.

A bike ride with Annabel helped, as did a run with Brian after I tricked my parents into watching the kids. I cried behind my sunglasses for most of our run, but it felt good to get it out; to tell Brian how shaken and upset I was about Meghan’s news, how hard it was for me to hear that someone I was so sure had been cured, had not. I don’t remember much else that I sobbed on that loop, but I remember one thing so vividly because it was as if I discovered something as the words exited my mouth. Now that I’m not running or crying, I think I may be able to explain it a bit better than I wailed to Brian last Sunday night.

If there is one way that cancer has changed me most, I know what it would be. I don’t take anything for granted. I know, that sounds so cliché, but I would bet that most people who have faced a terminal illness know what I’m talking about, and that it's on a level that is indescribably more deep than a cliché. I really don’t take anything for granted anymore. Sure, I know the sun will rise tomorrow, but I know now that it doesn't necessarily rise for any one person.

Which is why, I think, the reactions are so strong after something like my brother’s engagement party. Because I want to be at Sean and Lauren’s wedding so much that I can taste the tears that start to form when I think about it.

This is one of those blogs that I may or may not publish, and if I do, I will worry that I upset someone. But everything I’ve said is the truth and in the end, I still believe that the truth does more good than harm. And the truth is that the most painfully precious consequence to having a truly wonderful life is that I so desperately want to keep living it.

Me and my brother.
Teddy kind of enjoyed the bruschetta...

So much for the new white shirt!

After I took photos of Sean and Lauren, Sean snapped this one of all of us.