Search

the whipped cream conundrum

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

Category

Uncategorized

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…”

fullsizeoutput_da4

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:”

SADIE — FEBRUARY 2nd

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 — FEBRUARY 4th

fullsizeoutput_1225

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 — FEBRUARY 17th

fullsizeoutput_125f

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!

ME — FEBRUARY 19th

21273638_10155013944154065_7663396937078058548_o

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.

0130_palliative01-1000x666

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.”

 

If You Can’t Do the Little Things Right…

Sometimes it’s the small things in my life that seem so big and the big things in my life are no big deal.  Hey, I’m here, right? I often wonder why that is — I can confront life’s biggest challenges, but when it comes to the basics I’m somewhat helpless.  This notion got me thinking about whether I am doing the big things beyond surviving.

Often times, things that seem so insignificant, like watering my plants, feel overwhelming.  I have to go into the kitchen (which I am in countless times a day), get the water bottle filled, and walk around my living room watering my seven plants.  I probably could have completed this task in the time it took to type this sentence, but instead I wait until the plants start to wilt and decide it must be time to suck it up and get them fed. Sometimes the plants come back to life, although I have killed several plants, so I suppose it’s not a successful strategy.

I try to convince myself that my issues with completing small tasks are related to time — I often feel that I’m on borrowed time, so really the time I use to water the plants could be used for something more important.  But, the question essentially becomes, am I doing something important instead?  Usually not.  Instead, I think it’s due to a lack of vision.  Stay with me…

In his commencement address to the University of Texas graduating class, Admiral William McRaven advised the graduates that to accomplish big things, you have to start by making your bed:

If you make your bed every morning you will have accomplished the first task of the day. It will give you a small sense of pride, and it will encourage you to do another task and another and another. By the end of the day, that one task completed will have turned into many tasks completed. Making your bed will also reinforce the fact that little things in life matter.

If you can’t do the little things right, you will never be able to do the big things right. 

So if you want to change the world, start off by making your bed.

I keep hearing that phrase run through my head —  If you can’t do the little things right, you will never be able to do the big things right — because I want to do big things.  Not Greta -sized things, but working to ensure access to high-quality cancer care for all people, becoming an advocate for cancer patients and research, sharing my story with others who can benefit from my experiences, and writing a book.   I suppose that if I water my plants (and make my bed), my vision of greatness will take one step closer to becoming reality.

When I am overwhelmed by the thought of watering the plants, or making the bed, it is because I have a lack of vision, or, more likely than not, a lack of confidence in my vision.  I can get stuck in the “I don’t have time” mindset or wonder “who would really care anyway.”  There is time and people do care, so if I look at the small things as conduits to my vision, they may seem less tedious and more worthwhile.

Tonight I’ll water the plants, and when I wake up tomorrow, I’ll make my bed.  I’ll take out the trash and clean my car and empty the dishwasher.  I’ll do these little things because I’m ready for the next big thing.

I Got This … or Not

Survivor: a person who continues to function or prosper in spite of opposition, hardship, or setbacks.

As I was struggling to work through some complicated feelings today, someone called me a “survivor.”  It’s a word that people throw around a lot as it relates to those of us affected by cancer.  In fact, the term “cancer survivor” even has its own Wikipedia page – a person with cancer of any type who is still living.

But being a cancer survivor is more than being a person who is alive after a cancer diagnosis.  I am a human being living with the emotional aftermath of the experience.  There’s the post-traumatic stress, the sleepless nights, the unpredictable emotions, and, most of all, the paralyzing fear of hearing that other shoe hit the floor.  That fear is almost indescribable – the butterflies in my stomach every time I wait for my bloodwork to come back; the feeling of dread when I feel pain anywhere in my body; and the panic that runs through my body every time I think that the doctors I trust really can’t tell me how long this will last.

In spite of this emotional volcano just waiting to erupt, I “continue to function and prosper.”  Today,  however, I wondered, “at what expense?”   I do it to protect myself, as well as those around me – if they think I’m ok, they won’t worry and if they don’t worry they won’t ask me difficult questions.  It’s telling the world I got this, when, in reality, I really don’t have it at all.

So, I decided to Google “what is the antonym to survivor.”  Words such as “failure” and  “loser” popped up.  I’d be lying if I said I don’t see myself as those things more often than I’d like to –  it’s easier to see my flaws than my strengths.  But, simply seeing myself that way from time to time does not make me a loser or a failure.  Neither does trying to keep it all together while avoiding the difficult feelings.  It makes me human and does not negate the fact that I am, indeed, a survivor.

Somehow or other, this “analysis” has moved away from seeing myself as a cancer survivor to simply a survivor.  Cancer is only one of the setbacks in my life, although it has been the most major one and the one for which I carry the most emotional baggage.  But, I have come to realize that being a survivor, be it cancer or not, doesn’t mean having all my shit together.  That’s just exhausting.  What it does mean is fighting for myself and figuring out what I want out of this precious life.

Not Everyone’s Having a Good Day

Going into the infusion unit at Mass General is never easy, even under the best of circumstances.  I know I’m lucky – I go in for a brief period of time to receive a life-saving treatment that causes me very little side effects and prolongs my life.  I feel like a healthy person … actually, I am a healthy person.  But not everyone else is, and especially not most people in the infusion unit on Yawkey 8.  With this truth comes guilt, and it was not until last Friday afternoon that the guilt turned into sadness which turned back into guilt.

I don’t often speak to other patients in the infusion room (it’s a large space with several recliners separated by thin curtains).  People respect one another’s privacy.  But this treatment, I was speaking to my nurse (the amazing Emily E. on the Yawkey 8, if anyone from MGH is reading this!) about her wedding in Maine.  A gentleman hooked up to a bag of chemicals killing his cancer cells bellowed across the way, “Are you from Maine?”  This led into a conversation about his diagnosis, the recent good news he received, and a swapping of cancer war stories.

Suddenly, mid-sentence, my neighbor was interrupted by the patient next to him.  “Be quiet,” the man next door weakly said.  We all looked at each other – my neighbor, his wife, my mom, and I – as we all awkwardly paused.  The four of us began to apologize profusely.  A few minutes later, the man said, “Not everyone is having a good day!”

I walked away wondering, “Where has my empathy gone?”  It was not so long ago that I was sitting in that chair, in pain, wondering whether or not the secret sauce running through my veins was going to work.  It was just slightly longer ago that I was in those chairs and beds being pumped with chemicals that were not working.  It was only a few years ago I was struggling through more than 50 rounds of radiation.  And years before there was the high dose chemo and stem cell transplant.  I seemed to have lost all sense of time and place; I seemed to have forgotten from where I came.

I felt a profound sadness for this patient.  He must have felt so alone, so scared,  and so hopeless.  I can only speculate that he was thinking, “Why not me?” or perhaps, “Why me?”  I know these feelings well.  Not just from his perspective, but from my present perspective.  I often ask “Why me?”  Not why did this happen to me – been there, done that –  but why am I one of the lucky ones.  Why did this miracle drug somehow decide to work it’s magic on my body?  Then I think, “Why not me?”  Why am I not sick, why am I not suffering?  Sadness quickly turns back to guilt.

It’s not survivor’s guilt.  I don’t consider myself a “survivor” (I’m not even sure I like that label) because I continue treatment despite having no evidence of disease and because the medical research is so uncertain that no one really knows how long this will last.  For the moment, I get to be healthy, I get to feel joy, and I get to experience a life not limited by illness.  So, why me?  I’ll never know.  But, next time I’m in the infusion unit, I’ll remember there are those who are asking “why me” under different circumstances.  Not everyone has good days on Yawkey 8, and I can never forget that as I continue on my journey.

 

Move Over Whipped Cream … Make Room for Bourbon

I realized something tonight while trying to offer advice to a friend suffering from the common cold … after eight years in and out of hospitals, on and off of drugs, moving from doctor to doctor, the best medical advice I can offer, the cure for all that ails you is … wait for it … a shot of bourbon!  More precisely, a shot of bourbon mixed with hot water and a spoonful of honey.  It’s what many affectionately call a “Hot Toddy.” But it works.  Really.  It works.*

When I get sick, like I was last week with a nasty flu-ish plague, all I want is comfort.  I want to wrap myself in my big, fluffy cardigan sweater, snuggle under the electric blanket with Sadie at my feet, and comfort my soul with a hot bourbon.  This led me to wonder…when the chips are down, where do we find comfort?

For some of us, it’s our “comfort people.” These are the people who see us at our best and see us at our worst, but love us anyway.  These are the people who we can be honest and vulnerable with, these are the “quality” people, not the “quantity” people.  Comfort people can serve many different needs – I have “I’m having a nervous breakdown”  people, as well as “I could use a good laugh” people, or “I need you by my side to have this difficult conversation” people.

Some of us have a “comfort place.”  You may be thinking, “I bet Lisa’s comfort place is somewhere in nature.”  Ummm … no.  While I find the ocean peaceful and love my annual trips to Big Sur, my true, honest to god comfort place is … Target!  I see the bright red bullseye from the road, and know all of my worries will disappear upon entering the mecca of home goods and toiletries and food and clothes and, well, just about everything you could ever ask for.  (Even a Starbucks!)  I go to Target when I’m happy, I go when I’m sad, and I go when I need toilet paper.  It’s just my comfort place.

Some times we believe comfort is a bad word – as in “You need to get out of your comfort zone!”  While I am a firm believer that, to paraphrase Eleanor Roosevelt, I grow when I do the things I think I cannot do (and that is what I hope I teach to my students), there are times in one’s life where comfort is not only ok, but necessary.  For example, my mother still goes with me to every single doctor’s appointment.  Could I go alone?  Yes.  But she has been with me every step of the way and makes me feel safe in the scary world of medicine.

Some of us find comfort in unproductive ways like food (guilty!) and shopping (guilty!).  Some of us find comfort in burying ourselves in work (sometimes guilty), or some even find comfort in exercise (so not guilty!).  These days, for me, I find comfort in family and friends and big red box stores.  Oh, and bourbon!

*A couple of notes…

This blog post should not be interpreted as an endorsement for the use of alcohol to make all of our problems go away, everyone has their own vices and for me it’s bourbon in moderation.  

For all the teetotalers out there – a good vanilla black tea or chamomile tea works just as well.  Don’t forget the honey!*

Running on Faith

As I sat down to write on this sunny but cold “spring” afternoon in Maine, a favorite song of mine popped up on Pandora – Eric Clapton’s “Running on Faith” .  As I listen to his words (“Lately I’ve been running on faith, what else can a poor boy do?“), I feel like Clapton is speaking to me.  After all, I am running on faith – faith and love are what keep me going.

Two years ago at this time, I started to fade away.  There was no more modern medicine could do for me.  My body was giving up.  I experienced pain that not even the most powerful of opioids could control.  I talked about where I wanted to be buried; I asked my parents to care for Sadie; and I prepared myself for the worst.  But as I did those things, I also I sought second and third opinions, and I planned trips to the best cancer centers in New York and Texas to see experts.  I implored my doctors to find something new.  I knew there would be an answer.  I believed in something bigger than myself.   I had faith.

I also had love.  As Clapton sings later in the song, “When love comes over you, all your dreams will come true.”  While I think Clapton is singing about romantic love, I am talking about the kind of love that comes from letting others into my life.  I started to break down some of my defenses that I worked so hard to create when I was a “healthy” person.  I felt what happens when you honestly let people in – I felt the faith of others.

Faith and love continue to be constants in my life.  I am now kept alive by a drug which no one can say for sure will keep me alive until the gray hair appears on my head.  There is no scientific certainty.  “Well,” the doctors tell me, “we have no idea how long this will last.”  It doesn’t exactly instill confidence that I will live to resemble one of the Golden Girls.

I’m often asked what it is like to live with this uncertainty – a foot in the world of living and a foot in the world of facing mortality at a young age.  I never quite know how to answer, because I just do it; I live my life as if I’m no different from a healthy person with the exception of being injected with a secret sauce every three weeks.  But when I heard Clapton’s voice this afternoon, I realize that faith keeps me from giving in to the uncertainty, from allowing the uncertainty to control or paralyze me.

I still feel sorry for myself sometimes, and I still build walls to keep people out and avoid vulnerability like the plague.  I wonder, like my doctors do, how long this will all last.  But, I keep running on faith.  What else can a poor girl do?

 

 

 

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑