the whipped cream conundrum

"would you like whipped cream with that? hell yeah!"


Lisa Geller

To: Me * From: Me

50. Several years ago, I had little hope of ever reaching this milestone age, but here I am. The frequent trips to the doctors, the countless hospital stays, and the endless radiation treatments and other therapies to make me healthy helped to get me here. The miracle drug that reprogrammed my immune system to fight off the nasty cancer cells helped me get here. And the love and support of family, friends, and even strangers, helped me get here. So, it should come as no surprise that I wanted to do something monumental to acknowledge this big number. I wanted to give myself a gift. A trip? Some new bling? Skydiving? Nope. Instead, I celebrated 50 by having my port removed.

The purpose of the port — a small, plastic device implanted in my chest — was to deliver into my body the treatments which were intended to ward off the nasty cancer cells that didn’t seem to want to go away. For years, this port was a part of me not only physically, but also as a constant companion. I could feel it with a slight touch, and, every time I did, I was flooded with all sorts of conflicting emotions — fear and comfort; anger and joy; sadness and gratitude. Like a loyal friend, the port was there for me when I needed it the most.

When the port was implanted nearly seven years ago, I needed it to fill my body with immunotherapy drugs. My veins were too weak to withstand constant poking, so the port was a life saver in more ways than one. In 2021, my doctors made the difficult decision to discontinue my treatment; my body could no longer tolerate the drug and the side effects affected my quality of life. My prognosis was good, but my doctors felt it was necessary to keep the port in “just in case.” Finally, not wanting to continue living in the land of “what ifs,” I decided it needed to go. I spent my 40s living in a cancer bubble and, while I am just now processing the grief of losing those years, I want to embrace this new healthy decade. To do so, I knew I had to let the port go.

I was fascinated by the procedure to remove the port. Before the incision, an x-ray was taken to see the exact location of the object; the image is projected onto a large screen, and I could see it buried in my chest. I stared at it as the doctor made the incision, and as he began to dislodge the port, I felt some tears roll down my eyes. Shortly thereafter, the doctor exclaimed, “It’s out!” At that very moment, I smiled, cried, and felt a sense of relief I never knew existed. At the end of the procedure, another x-ray was taken to confirm the port’s removal. I followed the screen as I was wheeled out of the room — the port was gone.

I thought about writing a thank you note to myself because the moment the port left my body I realized that was perhaps the best gift I could give myself. I feel lighter; I feel healthy; and I feel closure. Of course, I still live with uncertainty and fear of the unknown, but for some reason, this gift allows me a newfound sense of freedom. While there will always be a physical scar, and I have many, this one is the gift I gave myself when I turned 50.

Tips from a Pro

My life right now feels like one continuous loop of news.  I wake up to it and it lulls me to sleep.  I am glued to each and every press conference, hanging on the words of the experts, and obsessively checking social media and news sites for any updates.  Even when it’s off, it’s always there with alerts on my phone or texts from my news obsessed friends (you know who you are!).  I keep thinking there’s going to be some nugget of information that will shift us back to normal, but there is no “normal” anymore — just the “new normal.”

The “new normal” is not new to me.  I have heard it over and over as I have learned to manage with living with cancer.   All the feelings that I, along with many of you, am experiencing right now are very familiar.  Fear, loneliness, isolation, uncertainty —  I have lived through this before.  In fact, I have never felt more prepared to face this type of crisis.

When I tell you that it is possible to see some light in your life and that there is hope, I truly mean it.  As I faced the unthinkable in my own life, there were certain things that kept me going.  I thought maybe you could all use some tips from a pro like me.

  1. Just Do It:  People have always remarked at my strength and resilience.  I was also told how they “could never do” what I do.  That’s nice and all, but entirely untrue.  You can do it!  You are doing it!  You are getting up every day and facing the most uncertain times of our lives (minus those of you who lived through the Great Depression).  We are all doing our best to make it work.  Keep going!
  2. Be Kind to Yourself:  We all want to be tough and strong for the people who love us, but, in my experience, that is ex-haust-ing!  So many of us are balancing working from home with caring for our families (including those of you juggling work and home schooling).  Remember, it’s ok to take a break and have a moment of self-pity.  Yes, this sucks.  If you need to cry or scream or whatever you need to do to vent, go right ahead.  Just don’t sit there too long.
  3. A Problem is an Opportunity in Work Clothes (credit to the late Gary Kent): Now is the time to do all those things you wanted to do — read the books on your bedside table, pick up that knitting project, train for a 5K, clean out your spare room, make that playlist.  Whatever you’ve been yearning to do, minus skydiving, take advantage of this opportunity.  While I was sick, I sewed like a madwoman, I baked like I was Ina Garten, and I started writing this blog.  Embrace the time.
  4. Stay Connected:  When I was at my lowest points, it was the connections with friends and family that saved my sanity.  Texts, calls, emails, anything that reminded me I was still human. Today, it’s morning coffee on FaceTime with a dear friend, video chats with my folks, and virtual happy hours on Zoom.  Even seeing colleagues and students on Google Hangouts helps me remember life is filled with more joy than fear and loneliness.  I am part of a community larger than myself.
  5. Rely on Others:  In the past, I had to rely on others because I had no choice, but I am terrible about asking for help these days.  I was reminded today, however, to let go of my pride and ask for what I need.  Because of my compromised immune system (Note:  I am not more susceptible than anyone else to get the virus, I am just less likely to have the ability to easily fight it off), I have to be extra careful.  This often means I cannot go to the store to get the things I need.  I need to rely on the kindness of others in my life.
  6. Family:  Keep your family, and friends who are like family, close.  You all know how strong my family connections are, and they are even more so in times of crisis.  These vital relationships are everything to me and are the light in my darkness.

For all of us, we have to mourn the old normal and embrace our “new normal.”  For me, I need to quiet those voices in the media telling me it’s only going to get worse.  I need to focus on what’s in front of me while still thinking towards the future.  And, I need to take my own advice.  As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, we are all one “beloved community,” and we are in this together.


“I’d Invite You In But…”


The thing about having a medical history like mine is that it makes the idea of “inviting” new people into my messy world somewhat complicated.  Whether platonic or romantic, it is a challenge to know when and how to tell someone, “I’ve had terminal cancer, but now I’m a walking #merckmiracle.”  I suppose most people struggle with similar a conundrum when it comes to relationships — we want to be vulnerable to form a deeper connection with someone, but how do we disclose those things we are hesitant to share?

While we all have baggage that may keep us from making meaningful connections, I feel like mine is a little heavier these days.  Let’s be honest, I went into cancer with pretty weighty bags — lack of self-confidence, trust, resentment, anxiety … I could go on.  But the fact of the matter is that cancer has made all those issues a bit more cumbersome to navigate.  So, the question becomes, when do I disclose my “mess” in a new relationship, whatever type that may be, and is the other person tough enough to handle it?

The logical answer is, “it depends.”  The person, the circumstances, and the comfort level all control the timing.  Honestly, I’m not sure I even let my relationships get to the door let alone deny entry.  I have a completely unfounded expectation that the response to my truth will be that I am too much — too much of a risk for people to take a chance on, too emotional for one person to handle.  And, to be told that I am “too much” is more than I can handle at this point in my life.

Of course, I’ve never tested this hypothesis, so how would I really know.  Instead, I keep new people at arm’s length, or I don’t “put myself out there,” as they say.  I keep things on the surface, so I don’t have to manage the perceived fall-out from exposing the mess.  Not “inviting” someone in is all about self-protection and the idea of adding another layer of emotional “mess” seems like a lot to add to my already full plate of emotions.

I realize this may seem contradictory to the fact that I am very public about my struggles — blogging, news articles, radio interviews — and someone could easily go on the Google machine and find some of that information.  True. But there’s something different about making a deeper connection beyond words on a screen.

At the end of the day, it’s about taking risks, letting go of assumptions, and having faith.  If I can do those things, I’ll consider inviting you in, but you need to be tough enough to handle the mess.






The February Four

Did anyone else feel like January took forever?  Everyone I talk to says the same thing — “January was the longest month of my life!”  At the end of the marathon of January is the reward of February — a big birthday month in my family.  So, thank goodness it’s February because this second month of the year brings me joy from the past and present.  Here are the “February Four:”


She answers to many names — Sadie, Sadie Lou-lou, Sadie Sprinkles, or just Boo-boo — and she brings so much unconditional love to the not only me, but the entire Geller family.  She was born in Mississippi on February 2nd, 2014 and made her way to Midcoast Humane in Brunswick, Maine where we found each other.

I always heard people talk about the joy that a pet can bring to your life but I never believed it until I met Sadie.  The first six months of our time together were fairly mellow — training, setting a schedule, and playdates with the campus pups.  I just wanted her to feel settled and loved.  But the settled part changed when I was diagnosed with endometrial cancer in 2015.

Sadie and I spent lots of time going back and forth to my folks’ house, with many extended stays lasting months at a time.  For the majority of the time, we shared a full-size bed on a pull-out couch.  She slept on the left; I slept on the right.  She was by my side as I recovered from surgeries and treatments, and she was always there at the front door to greet me whenever I returned from the hospital.

Not only does Sadie have my heart, but she has managed to capture the love of all the Gellers.  When I was growing up, my mother always told me, “You will never bring a dog into my home.”  Now it sometimes feels like she loves Sadie more than me!  The same is true for my father who I still believe is mourning the death of his beloved Chubby, his childhood dog.  Sadie and I recently FaceTimed my father while he had a brief hospital stay so that she could give him some virtual comfort.

Sadie is my constant, loyal companion, and I can’t imagine my life without her.  Happy Birthday, Sadie!



Nana Dora Geller taught me what it means to have grit and grace.  If I have the timing right, this photo was probably taken after a Passover seder when I was around eight or nine years old.  I was happy to be with her and celebrating an important family tradition.

I remember taking a taxi cab from Nana’s home to the Chestnut Hill Mall, having lunch at Filene’s, and shopping for Hello Kitty tchotchkes.  I remember feeling that despite being the youngest of her eight grandchildren, I was still the center of her universe.  (I am sure we all were, but she had a way of making me feel like I was the only one.)  I remember baking apple pies and lemon meringue pies and rugelach in her kitchen — my passion for baking came from her.  She is the reason I prefer the doughy inside of the bagels as opposed to the outer crust.

But, mostly, I remember her strength.  She, too, was dealt the card of cancer late in her life.  I have vivid memories of being with her at radiation treatments and watching her grow weak.  I remember frequent hospital visits, keeping her company as she made sure we all felt comfortable no matter how she was feeling.  And, I remember the last time I saw her when I was 11 years old in her nursing home bed wanting to go “home;” she passed away merely days later.

Born Dorathy Goodman at the turn of the 20th century, she helped raise her siblings in the old mill town of Lowell, Massachusetts.  At the age of 19, she married my grandfather, Louis Geller, and raised three children.  She inspired me with her ability to rebound from the challenges she faced in her life and the way she loved her family.  At my lowest of lows, I call upon the strength she handed down to me.  She gave me the gifts of grit and grace.  Happy 122nd Birthday, Nana Dora!



Uncle Al Geller, eldest son of Nana Dora, taught me many things, but the most important one was the art of the argument.  Many Geller family celebrations included the two of us yelling at each other back and forth across the table about some issue or another that both of us felt passionately about.  It was a “tradition” that began when I was a child and continued until he passed away in 2003.  Usually, we were on the same team, but he would play the devil’s advocate, challenging me to craft a persuasive argument to change his mind (believe me, it’s very difficult to change a Geller’s mind).  Sometimes it worked, but most of the time I stomped away from the table pouting.  Uncle Al was one of the people who inspired me to go to law school — he wasn’t a lawyer, but he could fight like one.  Uncle Al passed away just days before I graduated from law school.

When I was in the 8th grade, I wrote a biography of Albert Geller.  He told me about heading to Bates College in the early 1940s when most people didn’t go that far from home. He described taking the train to the University of Chicago where he sought a master’s in biology, potentially to head to medical school.  And although he did not become a doctor, he made sure people were taken care of.  Happy 97th Birthday, Uncle Al!



This is me at age five with the Ryan boys on my first day of kindergarten.  At the moment this picture was taken, I knew exactly who I was — I was self-confident and joyful and excited for the future.  This is who I strive to be and who I celebrate on February 19th.

What Took Me So Long

Although it’s hard to explain, in my pre-cancer life I saw myself as a “high-functioning” person.  I suppose you could think of it this way: I had stamina and could process information fairly quickly; I could read and write and problem-solve; I never had an issue remembering important things like names and dates.  I was a high achiever with high expectations for myself.  I’m fairly certain that others saw me the same way, and it is possible they still do.  Actually, it’s highly probable.  The thing is, I question whether this is who I am now.

A few years ago, around the time the #merckmiracle kicked in and I was anxious to get back to what I considered to be reality (work life, social life, family life), my palliative care doctor, Dr. Vicki Jackson, and I had a conversation about how the world would be different upon my re-entry.  We talked about my high expectations, the ways I can be hard on myself, and the need to see my “functioning” in a new way.  I couldn’t beat myself up because the things I used to be able to easily accomplish, like reading a book, no longer came easy to me.  Most importantly, she explained that my stamina probably would never recover to what it had been B.C.  You can actually hear portions of this conversation, as it aired on WBUR in 2017.


I pushed myself over the past few years to prove her wrong – to increase my stamina and sharpen my brain.  In many ways, I accomplished that.  I do the things I need to do as if cancer was never part of my life.  I have to say, I think I do a pretty good job of looking like I have my shit together.  I go to work at a demanding job, I spend time with my amazing family and friends, and I continue to be curious about the world around me.  I try not to let the emotional baggage get in my way.  I work hard to present myself as “normal.”

I’ll tell you something, though, that I generally keep to myself … pretending to be “high-functioning” is exhausting.  I spent the past few years holding myself up in front of someone else’s mirror, comparing my abilities to the abilities of others. I hold myself to unreasonably high expectations.  I try to keep my anxieties to myself – as if I talk about cancer holding me back from what I think is supposed to be my best, I am using it as an excuse.  At the end of the day, the effects of cancer on my life are not an excuse, they are my reality.

The truth is that Dr. Jackson was on to something which took me over three years to figure out – I am a new kind of “high-functioning.”  I don’t operate like I once did – I read and write slower, my ability to think on my feet is a little duller, and it may take me a bit longer to process information.   And, while I have taken time to grieve the loss of these attributes, I have also been able to embrace new ways of “functioning.”  I have a better sense of myself.  I am focused more on the process as opposed to achievement.  I am more empathetic.  Most importantly, I am tougher and more resilient than I ever was when I thought I was so-called “high-functioning.”


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