Monday, February 25, 2013

Lucky Water

Having cancer can complicate something as simple as drinking water. Please, let me explain.

Before I got cancer, here were my basic thoughts when I drank a glass of water:

I’m thirsty. I think I’ll have some water. Gulp. 

Now, after cancer, here’s a bit of what’s going through my head when I drink a glass of water: 

I’m thirsty. I think I’ll have some water. I can’t have tap water though because there could definitely be some sort of mineral or metal residue or chemical in there that could ignite another tumor. Are there any bottles of water left? Oh, but wait, what if that water bottle was in a hot water bottle delivery truck and the plastic melted just enough to put some sort of plastic carcinogen into the water? That would be bad. But they must make sure that doesn’t happen. Could they really air condition the backs of trucks? Ah, yes, that’s called a fridge. Right. But I bet they don’t put the water bottles in refrigerators...

How about just a Nalgene bottle? If it says “BPA free” it must be OK. Or is it those recycle numbers on the bottom that matter? Darn, I can’t remember which numbers were safe and which aren’t. OK, I’ll just use that metal bottle that Brian brought home from a golf tournament last year. "Made in China." Huh. Are they as thoughtful about cancer in China as they are here? I have no idea...

Alright, glass! Yes, that must be the safest way to go; as long as the soap from the dishwasher can’t cause cancer (note to self to get organic soap). I’ll just fill up my glass from the big blue bottle that they deliver to our house every month. Crap. Those bottles are recycled. And I got some silly email from Poland Spring last month about how they meticulously check those bottles before they recycle them because some people use the bottles for things like gasoline. Gasoline? What?!? I never even thought about those bottles being recycled, never mind that there could have been gasoline in them. Then again, I’d taste the gasoline, wouldn’t I? I hope so, because gasoline is sure to cause me cancer. Oh sweet Jesus. I’m thirsty. Gulp. Chemicals? Metal? Plastic? Soap? Gasoline? Nope. Just tastes like water. 

[Note: I wrote the above paragraphs on the train to work this morning. Before lunch, I scrolled a bit through my Facebook News Feed and I came across a post from Dana-Farber about men getting breast cancer from water at some camp. Obviously, I jumped back in my cancer cocoon and didn't read any more. But I honestly could not believe that that article popped up on a day that I had already begun to draft a blog about cancer and water. I guess it's kind of funny; in one of those really not-funny-at-all kinds of ways.]

* * * 

Ever since Dr. Bunnell told me that my cancer was simply bad luck, I’ve thought about those two words an awful lot. Bad luck. Does this mean that now that the cancer’s gone, my luck button is reset again? Would I need to have a second totally separate bout of bad luck for it to return? Or am I predisposed to the stupid disease so that my luck button doesn’t ever get a full reset? Urgh. Brain! Shut off!!! But it won’t. My brain’s like Annabel’s Furby (or “Shurby” as she calls it) -- it has no Off button and sometimes I want to lock it in the dark bathroom so it shuts up. 

Last Friday night, I found myself at Foxwoods for the second time in my life. This was so not me, not only because I’m too cheap to gamble (aside from a lottery ticket every now and then), but mostly because I’m not exactly the spontaneous type (unless you call unplanned trips to the hospital spontaneous). Sean had convinced Mom to go to the resort casino for a night to extend her birth-week celebration and at the last minute, I decided to join them. Of course, Brian was the best and encouraged me to go. It helped that he’s working on some hockey video that has him drooling over his keyboard for countless hours so I thought I’d sieze the day. Carpe Diem, right? I just Googled it -- it means, "the enjoyment of the pleasures of the moment without concern for the future." Yes, precisely.

Friday after work, my Mom, Sean, Lauren, and I headed down I-95 a bit giddy for our adventure. We each had some cash set aside to burn. I chose to cap my kindling at just under the amount of money that I take home for one day of work. I thought it would be reasonable to lose that in exchange for a great night out with my family.

Sean and Mom love playing Blackjack. They don’t do it often, or (sorry guys) particularly well, but they have a blast. After they went to Las Vegas last year for a work conference, I heard all about their success at the Blackjack tables. I had to see their luck in person, so I put on the tightest, shortest skirt I own (not sure why) and headed out to the casino with my family (scandalous, huh?).

Sean was, as usual, the most thoughtful brother and son and he set out on finding me (the cancer patient) and my Mom (the asthematic) the smoke-free casino. We walked to the end of the Earth before we got there, despite that along way my Mom and I insisted that the regular casinos were fine. Maybe Sean knows me enough to know where my crazy mind had already headed – down the dark route of, What could second-hand smoke do to me? I envisioned the smoke traveling to my chest wall and turning one little cell bad. Funny, I don’t think anyone else at Foxwoods was having similar thoughts as their cigarette ashes nearly fell into their laps.

The smoke-free casino was a bit of a misnomer. “Smoke-diminished-ever-so-slightly casino” would have been more appropriate but there probably wasn’t enough space on the sign for that. We all decided it wasn’t worth it and we headed back to the more manageable smoke-allowed casino at the MGM Grand Hotel where we were staying. In the end, I decided that I wasn’t going to let smoke ruin the night and I did something that I’m getting better and better at – I put the dark thoughts out of my head and decided to just enjoy myself.

After a fabulous dinner (chicken parm, bread, and chocolate tart), we hit the Blackjack tables.

I don't think I've ever played Blackjack before. I spent the first few rounds trying to add up numbers in my head after the dealer dealt her last cards. I was ashamed at how weak my math skills had become – another worry that I likely shared with, well, no one. Finally, I gave up trying to figure out if the numbers added to more or less than 21 and after each hand, I just waited to see if the dealer took my chips or added more to my pile. Most of the time, she took them.

Despite that we all lost every dime we had allocated to the night, we had such a great time. We shared the table with a small group of guys – twenty-somethings from South Boston who had come to Foxwoods to make some money on a Friday night. I’m not sure what they thought of a mother and her grown children who had clearly come down to Foxwoods comfortable with the fact that they would lose everything that they put on the table.

One take away from the night is that I hate slot machines. At the slots, I just sat alone, hitting a button and feeling like an idiot that I couldn’t even tell if a certain line of images was a winner or a loser. I decided $20 was enough to lose there. I’d rather lose the rest of my money while having some laughs with my family. So Blackjack it was for the rest of the night.

The main topic of conversation at our Blackjack table was how unlucky we all were. Yep, pretty much from start to finish, the dealer absolutely crushed each one of us. Of course, she didn’t enjoy it either because us losing surely meant less tips for her, but she hung in with us nonetheless. She told me about “the book” and what it recommended on each move. At one point, however, she surrendered her teacher role and admitted that there was nothing she could do for any of us; luck just wasn't in our favor that night.

It was true -- our luck was so bad that at one point, a middle-aged man wandered over to our table to join the game. He stayed for two minutes then, without a word, got up and walked away. Apparently he saw that the needle of the table's luck gauge was dead at zero and he felt it best to bolt. Smart guy because the needle never really moved.

By 2am, we knew that we should have been tired, but we weren’t. At all. Sean said it was the oxygen that they pumped into the air that made us feel like it was noon. Whatever it was, they should pump it into the vents of America’s office buildings (as long as it doesn’t cause cancer); we’d be sure to lap China and the rest of the world in productivity within months.

Last night, I sat down to write a piece about luck. The Oscars were on – the awkward-conversations-on-the-red-carpet part – and I got distracted. First, it was by how short Kristin Chenoweth looked next to everyone else. Second, it was by Robin Roberts.

When I first saw Robin Roberts in her stunning blue dress, my eyes were immediately drawn to her arms. They looked thin – too thin, or maybe not – and I wondered if she lost weight because of worry like I had (although my arms sure as heck never looked as athletic as hers!). I tried to see if she had any visible bruises along her veins, although I realized that if she had, she had probably used make-up or a tip to the camera man to cover them up. I tried to decide if she looked sick or healthy, but I ended up stumped on that one. Ultimately, I decided that I'd describe her as looking completely triumphant. And this was all while the TV was on mute.

Last Friday, before we hit the road for Foxwoods, Sean and I had a few minutes at my parents’ house. We were standing around the kitchen while we waited for Lauren to get home from work. I grabbed a People magazine (my Mom loves her People magazine). It was the one with Robin Roberts on the cover. I knew I shouldn’t turn to her story, but my hands flipped the pages there nonetheless. 

I had one question about Robin Roberts that I needed an answer to – How long after her treatment for cancer did she get MDS (the type of leukemia that I understand is caused by chemotherapy)? I skimmed the pages and saw that she had been treated for breast cancer in 2007. 

"Breast cancer?!?" I exclaimed. 

"Yeah, what did you think she had?" Sean replied. 

"I don’t know but I didn’t know it was breast cancer," I answered, with that pit in my stomach that I remember all too well from last summer and fall.

I started rambling out loud, something about how I couldn't believe that it wasn’t until five years later that she learned of her second type of cancer. To stop my rambling, Sean took the magazine from me. He started to skim the article and I knew he was looking for something that would make me feel better. He didn’t find anything, probably because he knows me well enough to know that once I get into a certain mental zone, I can twist almost anything into something dark. A minute later he declared that we weren’t worrying about cancer – we were going to Foxwoods. And so we did just that.

I haven’t worked up the courage to watch anything about Robin Roberts although I know there have been some quality pieces produced lately. I will watch them one day, but not quite yet. Because while I feel that she is an incredible example of sheer beauty, strength, grace, and intelligence, she still represents a reality that scares me to death (eek, bad analogy); someone who had some bad luck that caused some more bad luck. Breast cancer then cancer from the cancer treatment? I mean, come on. Doesn’t this poor woman, and so many other MDS patients like her, deserve a break?

So for now, I’ll stay at a safe distance from her story – a distance that is close enough to see that Robin Roberts may have had some bad luck, but ultimately, she had some great luck, too. She found a bone marrow donor, she underwent successful treatment for her breast cancer and her MDS, and she's back to work. Come to think of it, maybe that's a lot less about luck than it is about hard work. Because Robin Roberts fought until she won, and even though that's not a great strategy for a casino, it's really helpful in a fight against cancer.

*  *  * 

If my cancer was based on something that I did, or, Heaven forbid, something that I am doing, I wish more than anything that I could know what that thing is. If it’s plastic water bottles, I'll boycott them forever, and start a worldwide campaign for everyone to join me. If it’s dishwasher soap, I’ll eat off dirty plates and shout from the hilltops for everyone else to do the same. But there’s a good chance I’ll never know exactly what caused my cancer. So that leaves me here blabbering on about luck and about my complicated relationship with it.

In the end, I'll never understand luck. I'll never believe that "things happen for a reason," either. Instead, I'll go on believing that things happen -- for some reason or for none at all -- and how we react to those things determines how the next moment of our life will unfold. In other words, it's not so much the good luck or the bad, but rather, what we do with it when it's plopped in our laps, or thrown in our face, or kicked at our boob when we're not looking. 

Tonight Brian had a late practice so I put the kids to bed on my own. After Teddy and I tucked Annabel under her Blankie and gave her the kisses and hugs that she demanded, we headed into Teddy's room to read a book. All of the sudden, Annabel burst into tears and since that's very rare, I went right in to see what was the matter. "I need some water," she told me. I laughed out loud and headed to the bathroom. As I filled a plastic Mickey Mouse cup with tap water, I thought to myself how lucky I am to be here to pour my baby girl her water. Then I prayed that Disney just wouldn't be so cruel as to make a cup that causes cancer. Finally, as I watched Annabel take a sip, I realized how much I hope that she never has to think about the water that she drinks. Gulp. Gulp. Good night. 

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