Monday, December 25, 2006

Christmas Gifts

Merry Christmas!

We had a wonderful Christmas day, as I hope everyone has. Just being able to celebrate Christmas again was a big gift for me. My husband said that my latest "good" MRI results were what he was really hoping for most this year. Everything else was gravy on top of this, and there was a lot of it. Actually writing that just reminded me of A Christmas Carol, when Scrooge tries to dismiss Marley's ghost as a bad dream caused by indigestion and says, "There's more of gravy than of the grave about you, whatever you are." In my own way there is more of gravy than of grave about me right now, and I couldn't be happier.

We sat in our warm, comfortable home, opening presents and enjoying our children's reactions, eating good food, and spending some fun time with family and friends. We couldn't have asked for more. And after pondering my twelve days of Christmas and the many other blessings that "the good Lord gave to me", the natural question surfaced: "What should we give in return?"

Certainly teaching our children about the true meaning of Christmas is the very least we could do. Our son eagerly helped us this year with our traditional Angel Tree service project; something we started six years ago when we "adopted" a Salvation Army Angel Tree child who was the same age as the baby we lost earlier that year. We do it every year: this year the baby would have been six, so we chose a six-year-old Angel Tree boy and sent our son on a mission to find toys that would be enjoyed by "another boy a little older than you who needs some toys". On the way into the store, our son also begged for money, but not for his use in the candy dispenser right inside the store, like always. Instead, he wanted it for the "man with the bell and the red bucket" (the Salvation Army volunteer collecting donations). For his sister, he chose some of his own toys that he outgrew, which he thought she would especially like. And some others he put in a box for a family friend who was traveling to Mexico to deliver clothes and toys to needy children. And then he melted my heart as he grinned and handed a Christmas present to me: a note telling me that I could have his race car -- one of his favorite toys of all time. As it turns out, the gift is intended to be more about his sharing it with me than actual title transfer, but his thoughtfulness in giving up even partial ownership with something so dear to him was touching.

My husband and I have a tradition of giving each other at least one gift that cannot be purchased. It is always the hardest gift and the most precious, because it is a real "gift from the heart". My gift to him this year was the reading (and re-reading) of Dr. Laura's The Proper Care and Feeding of Husbands, and taking good notes and making some hopefully noticeable changes in our home as a result. (He said he did notice.) His gift to me was a square of tile from our garage, and the promise that on his next "flex day" (he has every other Friday off) of the new year, he will finally install the master bathroom tile that we bought earlier this year as our first home improvement project in this house. It's like the ultimate "honey-do" assignment, and he knows how much I like having nice master quarters. (One Christmas his gift to me was the deep cleaning of our master bedroom every Saturday throughout the year.)

The gift of service also comes to mind, because "...when you are in the service of your fellow beings, ye are only in the service of your God..." (Mosiah 2:17) and "...inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my bretheren, ye have done it unto me..." (Matthew 25:40). In addition to our Angel Tree tradition, we also have a six-year-old tradition of visiting and caroling on Christmas Day, in places where others may need companionship and cheer. This year we joined with some family and friends and went to a nearby home where several seniors lived with a nurse, and they were without much in the way of visitors or plans on Christmas Day. After that, we went to the local VFW post at the suggestion of a friend and co-worker, who is the commander of that post. Our final stop was a nearby nursing home. It was a fun experience to make new friends, and because I am both alive AND able to sing, it meant a lot for me to celebrate my gifts of time and talent by sharing them with others.

But finally, as I gazed upon the tiny white stocking that we hang every year on our Christmas tree as a reminder of the gift that we should give the Lord in honor of the birth of Christ and in return for our blessings, I remembered something that I read earlier in the year. It was written by Elder Neal A Maxwell, an apostle in our church who died in 2004 after a long and valiant battle with leukemia. Basically he wrote that there is only one thing we can give the Lord that doesn't already belong to Him in the first place. We could consecrate all of our time, talents, and blessings back to Him in various ways, and that would certainly be a very good thing to do. But we would just be returning back what He gave to us in the first place. The only thing that we really have, that would be a true gift to the Lord would be the submission of our own free will to His ways. Our will is the only thing that is personally and wholly ours. And once we realize that His will and ways are meant for our ultimate happiness anyway, it becomes easier for us to give this gift. One of many blessings I received this past year has been the reinforcement of what I already knew to be true: the Lord is worthy of our complete trust, and we are much safer and happier (regardless of our circumstances) if we "let go and let God" take over our lives.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

On the twelfth day of Christmas

On the twelfth day of Christmas, the good Lord gave to me...

...twelve months a-living
...eleven loved ones feasting
...a "10" for a husband "nine-year-old" favorite story
...eight hours of sleep book group buddies
...six hours of (good) sleep
...five Messiah solos (and one duet)
...four Mighty Oakes
...three Hallelujah cheers
...two chemo drugs
...and an MRI with good news we could see!

Not to sound grim, but I know that none of us is guaranteed to be here for the next twelve minutes, let alone the next twelve months. (And that's regardless of whether one has a cancer diagnosis.) Each day is a gift, and we don't know how many we will receive, so each day should be regarded as priceless and possibly rare.

I have been blessed to enjoy many more days than others with my diagnosis. Twelve months and still going -- the Energizer Bunny in me is doing okay so far. And as I have said in earlier posts, I am not just maintaining a pulse. I am living, thanks to the merciful and miraculous preservation of abilities and opportunities. Thanks to (expensive but) top-notch medical expertise and innovative technology. Thanks to loving supporters who have showered me with countless acts of kindness, words of encouragement, and prayers that have been heard, recorded, and answered in wonderful ways. And most of all, thanks to the One who hears and answers those prayers.

On the eleventh day of Christmas

On the eleventh day of Christmas, the good Lord gave to me...

...eleven loved ones feasting
...a "10" for a husband "nine-year-old" favorite story
...eight hours of sleep book group buddies
...six hours of (good) sleep
...five Messiah solos (and one duet)
...four Mighty Oakes
...three Hallelujah cheers
...two chemo drugs
...and an MRI with good news we could see!

In one day we were able to have two Christmas "eve-eve" dinners: we hosted a turkey dinner for our local missionaries before going to a family dinner at my dad's house, featuring a ribeye roast that he slaved over for hours. In total, we shared a table (or two) between myself, my husband, my two children, two missionaries, my dad and stepmom, and two brothers and one sister-in-law who were visiting from out of town. If I added correctly (neuro test?) it comes out to eleven happy people feasting on good food and good companionship.

A long time ago I decided to remember to give thanks for always having food on our table and the things that we need. And when it comes to love and friendship, it looks like we have an abundance there, too.

The day before, I received some very generous gifts from friends that I work with. In addition to my own business, I have a position with a really wonderful company whose CEO is someone I worked for many years ago and was happy to work for again. His immediate reaction to my cancer diagnosis last year was, "We'll go through this together," and he and his family and the other members of the company "family" have been very kind, supportive, and helpful -- not to mention patient -- as I have gone through this crazy year. Our family was invited to come to the office for a Christmas luncheon, and when we arrived, the CEO first presented gifts for my children that made their eyes pop out with glee. It was a Mastercard moment: "Look on kids' faces = priceless". And then we received a very generously stuffed envelope, consisting of donations that all of the employees contributed for our family; something they decided to do instead of their traditional gift exchange. The board of directors also chose to participate, so there was a generous check in the envelope along with the other donations. It was a very kind thing to do, and in addition to the love and support that it symbolized, it served a very practical purpose. We had just received a staggering medical bill, despite our very good health insurance. It was a lousy time of year for this to happen, but it became much easier because (as always) the Lord will provide according to our needs, and sometimes that is accomplished through the kindness of good people.

Being stuffed with two dinners in one day was symbolic of how abundantly we have been blessed in so many other ways, including the blessings of good family and friends.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

On the tenth day of Christmas

On the tenth day of Christmas, the good Lord gave to me...

...a "10" for a husband "nine-year-old" favorite story
...eight hours of sleep book group buddies
...six hours of (good) sleep
...five Messiah solos (and one duet)
...four Mighty Oakes
...three Hallelujah cheers
...two chemo drugs
...and an MRI with good news we could see!

I've had this gift within the privileges of holy matrimony for a little over eighteen years and seven months. I've been in love with this man since November 1982 (a little over 24 years and one month), and for many good reasons.

I know this public praise brings on the risk of making him an even hotter property if he should ever find himself a widower with kids who need a stepmom, but that's all the more reason for me to try and hang around as long as I can.

The scriptures tell us that we should " together in love, insomuch that thou shalt weep for the loss of them that die..." I think we've met that requirement. My husband had two cancer scares before I was diagnosed, and I remember the awful pain of realizing that our mortal separation (albeit temporary) was actually possible. I pained as I considered him having to go through a cancer battle, and I wept with relief when the biopsy results were negative. I had no idea that while this was going on, I was not far from starting my own cancer battle and putting my husband through those same awful feelings. I had no idea what he would have to bear for me and our family, but I have never been surprised by the strength and grace in which he does it.

This was not the first proving ground. There have been many other opportunities for me to marvel at how well I married, when I was just a silly young girl with a huge crush on this tall boy who danced with me and became my best friend.

I still remember conversations I have had with my parents, as they have each expressed their heartfelt gratitude for such a good husband for their only daughter. I still see on a daily basis how our home lights up when he comes in the door after work. He is not only a good husband, but he is a good father to our children. My daughter looks at me narrowly as "not Daddy." My son begs to know when Daddy will be home so they can play together. Even the dog is happy to see him, because he is the one to always check, "Did Chip get fed?"

The one who always takes out the trash. The one who has cleaned out the fridge more times than I have. The one who balanced on a very tall ladder to hoist a decorated Christmas tree up to the second-story ledge overlooking our entryway (while I napped). The one who teaches my son to "open the door for Mama." The one who changes diapers, cleans throw-up, juggles wiggly kids in church. The one who notices when I do something different with my hair and who calls me "gorgeous" at times when I know he must surely be saying it with a huge "love lens" over his eyes. The one who sings with me, plays with me, and (when the mood strikes and I give him my "Bambi eyes") will drag in the masonite floor from the garage and put on his tap shoes and dance with me.

We have many pet names for each other (we are still so squishy in love) but the one I call him most is "my Jared." I am his, and he is mine, and he is a very special gift that I enjoy every day, but he especially comes to mind at the mention of the number "10" ('cause he's such a "10") on the tenth day of Christmas.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

On the ninth day of Christmas

On the ninth day of Christmas, the good Lord gave to me... "nine-year-old" favorite story
...eight hours of sleep book group buddies
...six hours of (good) sleep
...five Messiah solos (and one duet)
...four Mighty Oakes
...three Hallelujah cheers
...two chemo drugs
...and an MRI with good news we could see!

Today my son's kindergarten class dismissed at noon for a two week break. His ability to go to school was doubtful last night, as he was really sick with fever, headache, and nausea. But this morning he was feeling much better and he eagerly dashed off to class pain-free, fever-free, and with a healthy appetite. I picked him up after school and took him to the doctor anyway, and it turns out that he has a nasty ear infection, so he gets antibiotics as an early stocking stuffer. And then I decided to reward his good day at school and his bravery at the doctor's office by taking him to see Charlotte's Web. It was one of my favorite stories when I was about nine years old, and I have plans to read it to my son after we finish reading A Christmas Carol.

It was a good movie portrayal of the beloved story, and my son liked it very much. I found myself relating to the happy circumstance of Wilbur seeing his first snowfall, when most spring pigs do not get that chance. It reminded me of the grim odds of my seeing this year's Christmas, and the happy circumstance of being one of the lucky ones who is still here. And I found myself hoping to someday become like Charlotte when I heard, "It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both."

My son was naturally saddened by Charlotte's death, pointing out that she had so many young babies. I was saddened, too, and hoped I wouldn't have that in common with Charlotte. But my son and I both expressed our appreciation for the story's reminders about miracles in the everyday things of life.

As the credits rolled at the end of the movie, we listened to Sarah Mc Lachlan sing "Ordinary Miracle", which summed up the message beautifully:

It's not unusual when everything is beautiful.
It's just another ordinary miracle today.
The sky knows when it's time to snow.
Don't need to teach a seed to grow.
It's just another ordinary miracle today.
Life is like a gift they say, wrapped up for you every day.
Open up and find a way to give some of your own.
Isn't it remarkable that every time a raindrop falls
It's just another ordinary miracle today.
Birds in winter have their fling, but always make it home by spring.
It's just another ordinary miracle today.
So when you wake up every day, please don't throw your dreams away.
Hold them close to your heart,
'Cause we are all a part of the ordinary miracle.
Do you wanna see a miracle?
The sun comes up and shines so bright,
But disappears again at night.
It's just another ordinary miracle today.

It reminded me of an Albert Einstein quote: "There are two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle." The cancer glasses sure magnify the latter way of living, and it is a very good thing.

It also reminded me of a song I sang nearly a dozen years ago in a local musical production at our church, part of which goes like this:

Some may see a rainbow as nothing more than light;
Others see a promise and a sign.
Everyday wonders, without number,
Are here all around, and wait to be found
By those who have eyes to see.
For the power of God is plain to see.
There are wonders on every hand
To those who will see through eyes of faith,
Beyond the mind of man.
For how could we hope to see His face
Who never could see His hand?
("The Power of God" by Steven Kapp Perry, from From Cumorah's Hill: The Book of Mormon Speaks to Our Day)

It was fun to talk with my son today during our drive home, about the daily miracles in our lives. How our being born was a miracle. How we all came to be a family, and how we love each other. How he went from being a tiny baby to a five-year-old who is capable of doing so many things. How we had some time together and how we both felt well enough to see this nice movie together.

Maybe the appeal that Charlotte's Web had for me as a nine-year-old was a foreshadowing of this very precious moment that my son and I would share today as my gift on the ninth day of Christmas.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

On the eighth day of Christmas

On the eighth day of Christmas, the good Lord gave to me...

EIGHT hours of sleep (???) book group buddies
...six hours of sleep
...five Messiah solos (and one duet)
...four Mighty Oakes
...three Hallelujah cheers
...two chemo drugs
...and an MRI with good news we could see!

Okay, my second "day of Christmas" that mentions getting some sleep!

The kids have long been sound asleep (sadly, our night owl son is asleep early because he is sick) and my dreamboat husband cleaned up the kitchen after dinner and I got some things off my "to do" list today and so I am actually ready to unwind and catch up on a full night's sleep! Can my body handle the shock? It'll be cool to find out!

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

On the seventh day of Christmas

On the seventh day of Christmas, the Good Lord gave to me... book group buddies
...six hours of sleep
...five Messiah solos (and one duet)
...four Mighty Oakes
...three Hallelujah cheers
...two chemo drugs
...and an MRI with good news we could see!

Today was our annual book group Christmas party, which is always a real treat! I had to miss it last year, and I didn't know if I'd survive to see this year's party, so I was really glad to be there.

We have the best book group, and the only things we really have in common are that we go to the same church, and we like to be in a book group. (And we all love the annual Christmas party.) Beyond that, there is diversity in everything from life stage and situation to even the types of books that we like to read. It makes for great book selections and discussions, and it has also formed some wonderful friendships.

Our annual Christmas party is usually hosted by the same person. We always keep it a simple affair: bring something to eat, and bring a wrapped book for the book exchange. We sit around the table and snack and gab, and we play the gift exchange game where we each get to choose a book in turn, and we can choose to "steal" one that has already been selected and opened, or we can choose a new one from the pile. We also have to guess who brought the book.

Unlike our other monthly meetings, this is the one meeting each year where we don't actually have an assigned book to read and discuss. The conversation is usually just really fun and random. This time it ended up with each of the married women in the group sharing the story of how they met and married their husband. I always love those stories - I love sharing my own, and I am always fascinated to hear how other couples came to be. It was a lot of fun, and before we knew it, we had used up the evening and then some.

The mailing list for our group is actually quite large, and it continues to grow, which makes it even more fun. But tonight there were eight of us gabbing and snacking and opening books around the table. Me...and seven of my book group buddies on this seventh day of Christmas.

Monday, December 18, 2006

On the sixth day of Christmas

On the sixth day of Christmas, the Good Lord gave to me...

...six hours of sleep
...five Messiah solos (and one duet)
...four Mighty Oakes
...three Hallelujah cheers
...two chemo drugs
...and an MRI with good news we could see!

Yeah, I've been hyper way into the late hours of the night, and I've been awake far too early in the morning. I must be yearning for my "brain on steroids" days last year, when I was writing articles and my book while recovering from brain surgery. But I finally had a good six-hour stretch that was good quality if not good quantity of sleep!

On the fifth day of Christmas

On the fifth day of Christmas, the Good Lord gave to me...

...five Messiah solos (and one duet)
...four Mighty Oakes
...three Hallelujah cheers
...two chemo drugs...
...and an MRI with good news we could see!

Yesterday's Messiah event was a dream come true! My voice was a little rough from such a long cold, but it did fine, and I spent the whole time just marveling that I was actually singing in a theater instead of being dead (or barely alive and unable to process music). It was a miracle and a joy. As a special bonus, as everyone stood and sang the Hallelujah chorus, my son stood and tried his best to sing along. As I watched him, I noticed that even at the young age of five, he looked like a little chorister in a boys' choir. His mouth was in perfect position: jaw dropped, corners in, etc., like a trained singer! (I guess the acorn doesn't fall far from the tree!) It was an extra treat.

My husband and I did our duet of "O Death, Where is Thy Sting?", like we did at Easter time, and it is especially poignant (or morbid - whichever) to sing that together under our circumstances. I was also able to sing "Behold, A Virgin Shall Conceive", "O Thou That Tellest Good Tidings To Zion", "Then Shall the Eyes of the Blind", "He Shall Feed His Flock", and "He Was Despised". Five favorite alto arias and recitatives. It was fun. I also got to have a cool mike taped to my face. It's very cutting edge theater technology and it's fun.

I'm so grateful to those who came and supported the performance, and I was delighted to hear that there are plans to do it again next Christmas, perhaps even with orchestral accompaniment. I have plenty of other reasons to try and be around for next Christmas, but it's nice to add more!

Saturday, December 16, 2006

On the fourth day of Christmas

On the fourth day of Christmas, the Good Lord gave to me...

...four mighty Oakes
...three cheers of "Hallelujah"!
...two chemo drugs
...and an MRI with good news we could see!

It's always nice on Saturday mornings to have some hang time as a family. We are four "mighty Oakes" (two parents and two "acorns") who have withstood some mighty storms by banding together.

We have a little family anthem that we made up during a road trip:

We are, we are, we are, we are,
We are the Mighty Oakes!
There's Mommy, Daddy, Jacob, Emma -
We are friendly folks!
Two parents and two acorns,
We're happy as can be -
We are the Mighty Oakes
And we love our family tree!

Friday, December 15, 2006

On the third day of Christmas

On the third day of Christmas, the good Lord gave to me...

...three cheers of "Hallelujah!"
...two chemo drugs
...and an MRI with good news we could see!

Hallelujah!!! It looks like Messiah is back on! I did contact the folks at the Artisan Theater to explain how much this has meant to me and the rest of the cast, and they are now quite apologetic and willing to proceed!!! Assuming that the rest of the cast is able to jump back on board, we're good to go Sunday night!

Part of my campaign to resurrect Messiah (bad pun) included mention of the many invitations I have extended to family and friends who are planning to come. I hope to see a good turnout, with everyone who is reading this in the North Texas area!

I am SO excited to have this opportunity to celebrate the preservation of my life and my talents throughout this year. My sore throat is finally going away, and my joy is at its zenith again - I guess I need to watch out!

Thursday, December 14, 2006

On the second day of Christmas...

On the second day of Christmas, the Good Lord gave to me...

...Two chemo drugs

...and an MRI with good news we could see!

Yes, today was the long toxic drip of Avastin and Carboplatin. I should clarify that "toxic drip" is meant as a reference to the devastating effect it has had (and hopefully will continue to have) on the tumor cells...and just the tumor cells. It's not exactly a picnic for the rest of my body, but it's been more tolerable than I expected. And based on yesterday's results, it's doing a great job so far!!!

I brought my laptop and did some work while the IV pump churned, and I was able to drive myself home after several hours of infusion (and an eternal wait for the mandatory valet parking to deliver my car). I met some more wonderful people who came to the chemo clubhouse. As always, the oncology staff was great, and there were so many nice patients and family members passing through, and it was such a lousy reason to be meeting each other. But there are always blessings in every circumstance, and these people are part of the blessing.

And likewise, sometimes the good comes with some opposition to help us appreciate the contrasting goodness of our blessings. I remember a quote from the hilarious movie, A Christmas Story, where Ralphie (grown up) recollects: "Sometimes at the height of our reveries, when our joy is at its zenith, when all is most right with the world, the most unthinkable disasters descend upon us." (This is right before the neighbor's dogs invade their house on Christmas day and eat the turkey that just came out of the oven.)

I'm still on my high from yesterday's MRI results, but upon arriving home this afternoon I discovered that there is a yin to the yang in this news. I got some disappointing news today, but thankfully it isn't anything about my health or my family or anything like that. It's about Sunday's Messiah performance.

It has been canceled by the owner of the Artisan Center Theater, for reasons unexplained. It is a huge disappointment, as many have worked hard on this. Our director even went to great lengths to arrange for a substitute director, because her husband just passed away. She worked hard through her grief to make sure that "the show must go on" in her absence, and so to have it canceled anyway (with no explanation) is just a nasty blow to her while she's already injured. For me, this was an opportunity to celebrate the blessings of my life and my talents being preserved, and I could think of no better way to do it than by singing these beautiful praises to the Messiah Himself. It was such a joy to sing last Easter, and I was thrilled by the invitation for another chance to sing this great stuff again (without having to wear angel wings and stand on a cloud). It is a miracle to be alive and singing (my cold is even starting to shake loose), and it's a shame to lose the chance to share this miracle with the many family and friends who have cheered me on throughout this battle.

I have half a mind (literally) to stomp around and scream about it and call the theater owner and rant and rave about this terrible shame. But I won't, of course. (Not very Messiah-like, and we should at least try to follow His example.) I've decided that it will just be another good reason to live long enough to see another Messiah opportunity come around. Maybe this Easter again. Maybe next Christmas. It'll be all the more miraculous if and when I do have a chance to sing again. Meanwhile, at least I still have half a mind, and that half can sing. (Just not at the Artisan Theater this Sunday - boo!)

And really - if there had to be both good news and bad news happening this week, I'm glad it turned out this way instead of the opposite (like a great Messiah performance ending up being my swan song because of devastating tumor spread). So I'm having my "aw, Shucks" moment but I'm realizing that this disappointment doesn't come close to a "yin-yang" balance of equal weight, and it's hardly "the most unthinkable disaster." It's just a bummer, and one that I'll gladly take, considering the selection of "bummers" that could be out there for me.

I know that there were family and friends planning to come and hear me sing, and I appreciate that desire to support me. Since that opportunity is gone for now, I have an invitation open to people in the North Texas area who wish to join us for a singing service activity on Christmas afternoon. For those who read my little blurb in the Ensign magazine, you'll know a little bit about this family tradition of caroling and visiting with people who are lonely at Christmas. And we'll probably end up at my house afterward for wassail (full of anti-oxidants) and nibbles. Anyone who wishes to participate may contact me by leaving a comment with your email address, or by emailing me directly if you know how to do that**.

**(k r i s t a o a k e s a t g m a i l p e r i o d c o m o r k o a k e s a t a m i c a s o l u t i o n s p e r i o d c o m i a m d o i n g t h i s t o h e l p k e e p s p a m m e r s a w a y : ) )

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

On the First Day of Christmas...

On the first day of Christmas, the Good Lord gave to me... MRI with good news we could see!!!

It was amazing, looking at October's scan with the splotch on it, and then looking at today's scan, where the splotch is now nothing more than a tiny hairline mark. It was a dramatic reduction of the tumor, and a very good result. My doctor was almost giddy as she showed this to me.

It was a fun day. I had a good night's rest last night, and I woke up feeling calm about this. As always, I felt the supportive power of the many prayers offered on my behalf. My appointment schedule was less than desirable; I had my scan in the morning and then I had to wait a couple of hours before I could meet with my doctor to get the results. Luckily, I had my good luck charm with me (my husband) and it so happens that the MRI place is right next to Dallas' famous Northpark Mall, so we did a little window shopping to keep my mind off what may or may not be (literally) on my mind. And then when I finally had my appointment, my doctor was mercifully quick to deliver the good news. I felt like someone at a fertility clinic who just got a positive pregnancy test, the way she and all the nurses and staff were congratulating me.

I'm not "done", of course. I still need lots of prayers. I learned that while this is a great result, it is not known how long it will continue to be effective. It is an experimental treatment that has had promising results like this, but it has only been studied for a few months. In any case, though, for now we get to relax and savor a season of joy.

Tomorrow I go in for my toxic drip, and although it isn't my favorite thing to do, it's nice to know that it really is doing me some good.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Happy Birthday

It's not really my birthday. Every neuro test starts out with "what day is it?" I'd pass that part today: it's December 12. The anniversary of my craniotomy and cancer diagnosis. The milestone that only a minority of glioblastoma patients get to celebrate.

Lance Armstrong marks the anniversary of his cancer diagnosis date, by saying that it was the day he "started living". So I guess it's kind of a birthday of sorts.

December 12, 2005, was not the day I started dying, although it surely gave me a big heads-up that mortality was hovering over me. Not to sound too grim, but we all started dying as soon as we were conceived. We were all born, and we will all die someday -- we just usually hope it will happen later rather than sooner.

December 12, 2005, was the day I started living. I awakened from surgery to the news that the tumor was malignant. It was a strange time. When I first woke up I wasn't sure they'd even started surgery yet, until I felt the big bandage on my head. And then in that initial fuzzy state I (unknowingly) tortured my husband with repeated questions about the biopsy results. It pained him to tell me again and again: malignant. I also remember being thirstier than I'd ever been before, and I would beg the nurse to just squeeze a drop of water into my mouth, and she would angrily refuse, saying I'd throw up if she gave me anything to drink. I started getting feisty, and I guess that feisty spirit has been good for me ever since. Within a couple of hours I was cracking jokes and talking about an episode of one of my favorite television shows. I recognized every person who met with me and talked with me on the phone. I talked shop with clients who came by, and remembered every detail of each project. It felt good to know that generally speaking, I was still "me".

I also knew at the time that "malignant" had a range. It was a couple of days before I would know the tumor staging, so I only felt an initial disappointment that - okay - I guess I won't make it to the century mark. My husband and I won't die together in our sleep, holding hands, while our octogenarian children are being visited in their nursing homes by their great-grandkids. Bummer. But I figured, hey - if the tumor is at a stage that gives me a decade or so, they'll probably have better treatments or a cure by the time I need them. I'll still dance at my kids' weddings. No biggie. It was easy to wave away any thoughts of catastrophe, especially considering the sedatives that were coursing through my veins at the time.

It was a couple days later that I got the big blow: grade four glioblastoma. Typical prognosis anywhere from less than a year to maybe a little longer. Once in a while someone very exceptional hangs in there for a few years. Favorable conditions were my age and the tumor location. My neurosurgeon looked so sorry as he delivered the pathology results.

I remember lying in my hospital bed, digesting this terrible news and weeping. One year to live...maybe. What would I do with that year? And how much of that year would I actually spend being functional, while my brain is eaten away by cancer? When would I become paralyzed or blind? When would I lose my ability to work, lose my personality, forget who my kids are? When would music (a favorite pasttime) become foreign? When would I become scary and disturbing to my family? When would I reach the point where people would discuss what a blessing it was for me to finally pass on, after so much suffering and disability? My imagination conjured up many horrific scenarios.

So what did I do with that year? I lived!

I worked. I sang. I wrote a book and a couple of articles while recovering from brain surgery. I blogged. I loved. I traveled. I clog danced. I played. I made a huge mess in my office. I helped my son learn to read. (To name a few.)

One year later, I can finally chew gum and eat "tall" food again. My jaw finally stopped hurting from the surgical incision.

One year later, I still have more hair than my husband. Some of the mange has grown back.

One year later, I can still count backward from 100 by sevens really fast.

One year later, I sightread music better than I used to.

One year later, my lifestyle is much more normal than I expected it to be.

One year later, everything has become more delicious and miraculous.

One year later, the only thing that could threaten my Messiah solo this weekend is a nasty cold (assuming tomorrow's MRI results don't warrant an emergency craniotomy).

One year later, I am in the midst of a new battle, and tomorrow's MRI will tell me how that is going. But I survived disappointment and avoided discouragement following October's news of tumor recurrence.

One year later, I am here...
...thanks to the favorable conditions of age and tumor location...
...thanks to prior tragedies that identified and prevented potential complications...
...thanks to easy access to good expertise and state-of-the-art treatment...
...thanks to the lifting of daily cares by kind and generous friends...
...thanks to kind employers and clients, who have supported us in numerous ways...
...thanks to family and friends who have surrounded me all year with love, laughter, help, and priceless memories...
...thanks to my husband and children, who provide a constant motivation to stay here...
...thanks to the outpouring of faith and prayers of so many, which have opened doors for miracles and sustaining strength...
...thanks to a loving Heavenly Father, whose good will has been to keep me here for now, and whose plan for me (whatever it may be) is known to be of loving design; and...
...thanks to a Savior, whose priesthood is here for my benefit, and whose sacrifice makes it possible for me to ultimately overcome even the worst that glioblastoma can do to me.

Despite the processes of cancer diagnosis and treatment, and despite staring mortality in the eye every day for the past twelve months, this one year of living has managed to be at least as rich and full and joyous (if not more so) than the nearly four decades that preceded it. So if I can find a way to stick a candle on a Sucrets lozenge, maybe I'll have a little birthday celebration today.

My second year of living (hopefully a full one) will kick off with tomorrow's MRI, so lots of prayers are needed and appreciated. (I'm already hearing a drumroll in my head...)

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Let Them Eat Cake

A friend called my husband and told him about a neat Newsweek article on (and I also noticed a blog comment about it, too):

It's exciting to see so much research and innovation being devoted to this type of cancer. I had to fight back feelings of envy while reading about the featured neurosurgeon from Houston with glioblastoma, who has been without a recurrence for 18 months (twice as long as I went). His treatment involves a vaccine that is unavailable to me, because my tumor site was "contaminated" by the chemo wafer that they put in my brain, and a vaccine cannot be made from it. (Although the wafer was the state-of-the-art approach at that point.) I hold it as my emotional "trump card" - something positive to consider if my MRI next week shows any new tumors that call for more surgery. The newly removed "fresh" tumor might be usable to make a vaccine (assuming I have the right gene receptors for the vaccine to work, as described in the article).

As with all reports of promising developments, the good news is placed in the context of contrast with the grim realities.

"More than two thirds die in a year...", it quotes from the Central Brain Tumor Registry. (Not sure what the Central Brain Tumor Registry is. Is it like a gift registry? Do I get to pick out the china pattern for my hospital dining?)

More than two thirds die in a year. The anniversary of my surgery is coming up on Tuesday. If I make it that far I'll be in the lucky 33 percent who see their anniversary. I hope that today's technology will keep me going beyond that point, until the next promising development becomes available. And then maybe that can keep me going until the next, and so on.

The article also attempts to describe the challenge of glioblastoma with an analogy to marble cake: "Glioblastomas are among the most lethal tumors, because they are resistant to both chemotherapy and radiation. Worse, they send out microscopic tentacles that seed other areas of the brain with individual tumor cells. Even if a surgeon can remove the main mass of a tumor, he cannot possibly excise all these scattered cells. It would be like a chef trying to remove the marbling from a marble cake—and get every last crumb. These additional cells generate new malignancies, sometimes within weeks of the initial operation." Such statements are disheartening until I remember that this is "arm of flesh" talk. Even though it might be based on available science and history and therefore seem to be easily reliable information, it is counterproductive to the exercise of faith.

It's like when I was going through infertility treatments and my brother was learning about embryology in medical school. His comment, as we both discussed our increased understanding of how the conception and gestation processes work and what challenges they face, was that "it's a miracle that anyone is ever born." It's true. Having looked at reproductive science from a closeup view, it was staggering to me to realize how the life process, from its earliest beginnings, is already subject to death. Birth itself is a miracle. Each day of life is a miracle, cancer or not.

So here I am, not only still alive as I approach a milestone that puts me in a statistical minority, but I'm still able to do more than just maintain a heartbeat. I feel like Rush Limbaugh, doing so much "with half my brain tied behind my back."

This month our church magazine, the Ensign, features a little blurb that I wrote during my "brain on steroids" days following surgery. (You can see it on in the Gospel Library section - Ensign December 2006 issue, in the "Questions and Answers" article.) Next Sunday, the 17th, I am scheduled to sing Messiah again at the Artisan Center Theater in Hurst, Texas. (And it's free, so come and hear me if you're in the area.) Unless my MRI on the 13th forces me into an emergency craniotomy, and as long as I can finally get over my cold, I'm looking forward to a dream performance.

This is much better than what "the arm of flesh" would have predicted at this point. It's a miracle, made possible by the faith and prayers of many on my behalf.

Makes me want to get a marble cake and celebrate.

Monday, December 04, 2006

More Than Winter

"Happy Frickin' Winter."

This gave me one of the biggest laughs I'd had in a while, which is good because I've had a nasty cold and lowered white blood cell/neutrophil counts, and humor is good for the immune system.

This came from Glenn Beck's website. Glenn Beck is one of my favorite radio talk show hosts, and he also has a primetime spot on CNN Headline News. He is not only a fellow Mormon, but also a fellow adoptive parent. And he is hilarious. One year we bought his "Happy Rama-hanu-kwanz-mas" t-shirt, and now he has a greeting card depicting a father and son who go out shopping for Christmas trees, and the tree lot has a banner that says, "Christmas Trees", with "Christmas" crossed out with "Holiday" replacing it, then "Holiday" crossed out and "Winter" replacing it. Inside the card has the hilarious punchline with a good point: "Happy Frickin' Winter." It was a great way to capture the absurdity of the devolution of "the most wonderful time of the year".

Growing up and attending elementary schools in Illinois, I remember learning Christmas songs (yes, even the Jesus ones) and Hanukkah songs, and making manger scenes as well as dreidles - IN PUBLIC SCHOOL. (Someone in the ACLU is hyperventilating right now.) My civil liberties remained intact. I remember thinking it was pretty neat to learn about what my Jewish friend celebrated, and I never once felt like my own Christian faith was threatened. Looking back, I think that if anything fostered acceptance and tolerance of diverse faiths, it would be the "free exercise" of those faiths. (A little constitutional lingo, there.)

As time passed, I noticed that later years took out the religious parts of the holiday season, and the schools focused on Santa, Rudolph, and the like. Now the holiday part is completely removed, and my son makes snowmen in school and looks forward to "winter break". The biggest tradition of the season is Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving when crowds wait all night outside store entrances for the big doorbuster deals. (Okay, as a shopping nut, I can't honestly criticize that activity, but I wish there were more religious fervor directed toward better things.)

As an unofficial member and fan of P.O.O.P. (People Offended by Offended People), I can only give a tongue-in-cheek observation that "Happy Winter" celebrations are not politically correct enough. After all, isn't it "seasonist" and offensive to people (like me) who were born in the summer?

By the way, I do have to mention that my son's elementary school did have a Scholastic book fair early in the semester, and I was incredibly (and pleasantly) surprised to see how many Christmas (yes - even Jesus Christmas, not just Santa) and other religious books were offered for sale IN THE PUBLIC SCHOOL BOOK FAIR! (Another ACLU person hyperventilates.) I personally bought as many as I could afford, as a show of support.
The reason I share this viewpoint is that I was contemplating the upcoming Christmas season, and hoping that this year it would bring good news (my next MRI is on the 13th) instead of the devastating news of my cancer diagnosis last year. I worried so much that I ruined Christmas once for my family by creating a negative association, and I didn't want to do it again. Of course, my Prince Charming husband refuses to let me think that I have the ability to "ruin" anything, and my mom always insists that every day we are all breathing is a gift to celebrate with gratitude (and she's right). And added to that came my own realization that this more than just a winter holiday. It's more than snowmen. It's more than traditions and carefree celebrations and parties and credit card bloat. Christmas is coming soon. It's the celebration of the birth of the One who makes something as awful as cancer into just a temporary nuisance in the grand scheme of things. I still hope I don't have more bad news to share at this time (or any time, for that matter), but I guess it's less than tragic to have to face the hard things of life at a time when the birth of our Savior is able to provide the context and comfort we need to deal with mortality's messes.

Having endured many Texas summers, even this July-born girl can find much to enjoy about the arrival of the winter solstice. But I am grateful to have something much more significant to celebrate. I hope I have many more opportunities to say it, but...Merry Christmas!