Saturday, April 30, 2011

Showering Joy

In the book, Valley of the Dolls, which I read in my twenties, there is a woman character with breast cancer who kills herself rather than have her man see her disfigured because he so worshipped her breasts.

At the time weighing about ninety pounds, none of which were in my breast tissues, I thought it stupid. That if all he cared about were her breasts, than he didn’t care about her. And sadder still was the fact that so much of her identity was in her breasts. The essence of her was only her body, not her intelligence, not her personality, not the things she did. She was only a breast.

A few more decades of living has not changed my mind. My body is something I occupy, the physical form that other people use to recognize me and keep me separate from other people. And although I like to make it as attractive as possible, each year it is a little less so. I’m no longer a cute, adorable 20 year old. I may be holding my own at 68 but for a 98-year old, I look damned good.

Maybe I should like about my age in the other direction. Then people will say, "Isn't she remarkable for 85?"

My surgeon was not totally satisfied with the appearance of my right breast.

When I fully showered for the first time after the surgery, I had the first chance to closely examine the changes (I deliberately will not use the word damage).

Yes, there is a slight indentation. My nipple is tipped at a slightly jaunty angle. I suppose you could think of it as winking or saluting the other one.

I really don’t care. Maybe if I were 20 and man hunting I would.

Maybe not.

It certainly is not worth reliving my traumatic twenties. Once was enough: Been There, Learned the Wisdom, Got the T-shirt.

What I did concentrate on was that indescribably joyous shower. Between the two eye surgeries and the breast surgery, I’ve had a month of not being able to totally indulge in having hot water sooth my entire body at will. I almost danced under the water.


Nah, not a problem.

Friday, April 29, 2011


We find many reasons to celebrate at number 15, but last night was special. Bring out the champagne, foix gras and smoked salmon. With No. 2 son just back from Paris, housemate off to the mountains, and me chemo-safe it was a wonderful night.

I’ve been especially moved by No. 2 son, who not only visited me in the hospital the night before surgery, did a special drawing when I returned home welcoming me back, but told his mother that if she had to be away during the chemo (which I didn’t need--yes, yes, yes) he would have been there. He even knew that the question he would have to answer for any medical intervention would be my birthday and he wanted to make sure he had it right.

The birth date question was asked so often every time I get near the hospital that it has become a long mantra: juillet vingt-quatre, mille neuf cents quarante-deux. Even the handsome Italian taking up to surgery asked. I almost expect to have tell the parking meter where my housemate left the car near the hospital what my birth date is.

I was so excited yesterday about not needing chemo, I forgot to ask for the stitches they pulled out. The string was the most beautiful royal blue. I joked about wanting to colour co-ordinate to my clothes. The nurse and I agreed that it is too bad that the string only comes in one colour. I thought it would be nice to put it with all the drawings of my breast that I have in the folder I've been keeping with all the paper work.

I know I still need to go through the radiation but that is such a minor thing in comparison to what I thought it would be.

Thursday, April 28, 2011


Today they took the stitches out and I met with the surgeon.

It was a 2 cm. stage 1 fast going towards stage 2, completely encapsulated tumour. My lymph nodes were pristine.

I will need radiation and a medical person will be coming to the house, yes, you read that right, will be coming to the house to help me set up the program and work through any questions I have.

There will be five years of a pill that will destroy anything that a new cancer might consider good to eat and thus grow.

Mammograms will be annual not bi annual.

This whole nightmare is almost over.

Tonight we celebrate.

Cancer care package

The box came right before I had to leave for a colonoscopie, a cheery way to start a less-than cheery day.The green customs form had a long list but I resisted reading it so I would be surprized. Some of the things inside:

Penguins: a card with a penguin smelling a flower, the DVD for Happy Feet, etc.
Mandalas: My friend could not have known how big a part of the Geneva Writers Group classes they have been.

Crayolas: No European crayons are this good. And I needed some of the names for something I’m writing not to mention doing the colouring of the things she sent.
Moisturizers: Things that make chemo go easier

My friend wrote she wished she could have sent herself. I imagined a tiny version of her that I ran under the faucet and her growing to life size so we could continue on our good times such as cookies and castles in Carcassonne or deer coming up to the car on Long Island.

Ours is unlikely friendship if you consider our political views (does each of us hold a secret desire to convert the other?), but our values are the same and our respect for the differences just makes our conversations all that more interesting.

We are a perfect example of agreeing to disagreeing and laughing about it.

We met for business reasons, had business dinners where we got the work issues out of the way as fast as we could so we could get onto the good stuff to talk about.

Visits back and forth strengthened the friendship.

Of course in the beginning as we set at Mortimer’s eating chocolate cake maybe a decade ago, we had no idea that her talents included putting a great cancer care package together.

The colonoscopie went fine. It was over, but what continued was the pleasure not just for the gifts for the thoughtfulness.

I've no idea how people can get through life without friends, it is a lesson I never want to learn.

Monday, April 25, 2011

My life is white

Before my diagnoses for breast cancer, I scheduled a colonoscopy. After four wonderful days with friends from all over the world in Argelès, I'm back in Geneva on the pre exam diet which is no fiber and mainly white foods: potatoes, pasta, non grain anything, chicken, white fish.

Maybe because I feel deprived of beautiful fruits and veggies, which interest me far more than meat ever did, I notice that my right arm is painful, although still no more than a 1.5 or 2 on a scale of 10. Until now it.s been .5.

Maybe, the people doing the pain study will be glad to see it. They might have wondered if I have nerves.

I think I'll go up the street where there are pink trees in bloom and around the corner where fields of rapeseed make sunglasses a necessity.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

A great card

After four wonderful days in Argelès visiting with old and not so old friends, I came back to a card from my oldest friend. The card said
"Tina was so tough her poodle skirt had a bulldog on it." We go back over half a century of laughing through our problems.

Now that's a good pill.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011


I love hot showers with water pouring down on my head. Between my two eye surgeries and the breast cancer surgery the affected areas have to be kept dry. I am bitching that I've been limited in this activity.

My new fantasy is to take a normal shower, lathering my hair with shampoo and baking in the hot water until my bones are warm.

In one way I am lucky because of the hand-held European shower heads that I can wash around my eyes on breast. It is small consolation that I don't have to avoid both my eyes and breast at the same time.

Normal showers will happen again after April 28, but never again will I take showering for granted. Meanwhile I am allowing myself a three minute pity party with each partial shower which is a fraction of the time of my usual shower.

Geneva is experiencing the driest year since 1975 and the hottest April since they started keeping records in 1880 something. I suppose I can say I'm being a good water conservationist.

Nah...I don't want to make the best of bad a shower. I want a long hot shower full stop.

Monday, April 18, 2011

The eyebrow

It is a good thing I don't have a lover.


The scar from the surgery will be like an eyebrow over my nipple. I would be so tempted to draw around both nipples so they looked like the pupils of eyes, add a few lashes and then an eyebrow over the unaffected breast in the same place as the surgery scar.

I doubt if the average lover could take it? But then again if he could, he would be a keeper.

The next steps

1. Removal of stitches
2. Set up chemo
3. Do radiation
4. Forget the whole bloody thing.

The nurses

All the nurses were wonderful. I felt totally cared for as an individual.

Sophie never stopped smiling. She explained whatever she had to do.

Perrine was even sweeter if possible. My last night in the hospital, she came in after her shift and she sat and we talked for a short time as we ate the last wild strawberries my friend had brought in from the Ferney Marché earlier in the day much like girls in a dorm eating chocolates and chatting late at night.

I will not see her again because she is off. By the time she is on again, I will be home.

But like all the nurses, they have made my stay pleasant.

The second trauma

Throughout the whole thing there were two real traumas.

The first was the letter from the breast foundation saying I needed follow up.

The second was when I was unwrapped and I saw the tube attached to the plastic flask that was draining whatever it was they wanted drained. I had worn it for 48 hours at that point.

The tube was inserted through my nipple.

It didn’t hurt.

It just felt gross.

I wanted to rip it out.

Now when I didn’t know where it was, it hadn’t bothered me. Still, when the nurse took it out Monday just before I came home, I was relieved. I was equally surprised to see the tube had been about four inches long.


The surgery is over. Dr. M. tells me my lymph nodes are clean. The little suckers are gone from my body. They stayed at home and didn't travel to my lymph nodes.

Thank you to the Breast Fondation of Genéve for the free mammogram that caught this early.

Thank you thank you thank you thank you.

Wires and liquid inside

I see the lovely Claire, who was so nice when I did the prep work earlier in the week. Her son wants to be a writer. She tells me they are running a bit late because one of the nurses is off with a bad back. I am there all day, it is not a problem.

I also tell her hug in English is calin in French. She didn’t know that. Even my Anglophone housemate hadn’t thought of that, but the locals call it Youge with a hard G but she was using mainly French when she came into contact with the hospital many years ago and more times than she would have liked.

Pascal from Parma finally is free to insert the wire into my breast.

I think it will hurt.

It doesn’t.

Dr. Colo from Cameroon (Pascal from Parma, Colo from Cameroon—how much alliteration will there be in my stay?) inserts dye into my breast in three places. Again there is no pain, just slight discomfort.

“When you get back to your room massage it for 15 minutes then swing your arm for 15 minutes. It disperses the liquid.

I’m obedient.

Donuts and tongues

I’m taken into a room with huge green/grey and white machine with a bed in front of it that looks like a tongue sticking out of the donut's mouth if donuts had mouths.

I’m to lie down on the tongue, and nurse straps my hands over my head and tells me not to move for 20 minutes.

A Coke bottle green square moves down very close to me. I shut my eyes and think of the Reiki treatment my friend Ro gave me in Long Island last fall. It works. I’m relaxed. Relatively.

The plate moves and I travel into the donut. A window has a metal something that looks like one of those rulers that folds up. It clicks away.

This time I think of myself filling up with colour dusty rose starting at my toes. Then I imagine the colour draining away. By the time the colour disappears.

They hand me two A4 contact sheets each with photos of my lymph nodes. It is called a Lymphoscintgrahie. The nodes look like white stepping stones.

“If there’s a cancer cell in any of you, send it back to the tumour,” I tell them.

A baby is God's wish that life goes on

As I wait to go into the operating room, before I’m put out I hear a cry. In the next area is baby just born by Cesarean. I can peak and see it is waving its arms and legs as the doctor looks it over.

I tear up.

Pain test

Dr. K from Köln (Is there anyone Swiss in this hospital) arrives hoping I’ll agree to the pain test. The object is to identify women more susceptible to pain so they can reduce their suffering. He walks me to his office in the old part of the building. He has a Vincent van Gogh poster and mouse pad. He is happier to talk in English than in French, although we exchange a few words in German. I think he is in early thirties but he is in his mid-forties. All day I’ve been wondering when these kindergarteners have joined the medical profession.
Because I’m in jeans and stockings he gets me scrubs. I pretend I’m on Grey’s Anatomy. The test involves attaching three electrodes to my right leg while I relax on a black Barcalounger. He gives me very mild shocks at increasing intensity reassuring that I’m in control to stop anytime I want. I get to level 6. I probably could go one more level, but my dedication to science has early limits.
I then plunge my left hand in hot water and he repeats the series of shocks which bother me less.
I ask him if its distraction, but he doesn’t know, although he too would like too.
I see him the day after the surgery and will meet with him again when the stitches come out.

HUG is Huge

For different tests I need to travel to different parts of the hospital.
Mario (not of game boy fame)from Italy is my first driver and he leads me to what look likes an open cattle car with a metal floor, drawbridge and burgundy red metal bars.

“Like Reine Elizabeth,” he says, and I start imitating the queen’s wave.

There’s a seat at the rear and Luis perches behind that to zoom me through the building’s bowels. Pipes wide enough to crawl through are on one side of the corridor, and walls painted both for children and with medical information in the style of Australian Aboriginal art is on the other. We pass other cattle cars and people in white coats riding bicycles.

We pass the delivery entrance and I peek into the commissary. It is larger than any grocery store I’ve seen.

The ride lasts seven minutes.

Olivier is my next driver. I ask his name and he is surprised.

“Transporters usually don’t have names,” he said. “That’s for doctors and nurses.”

“But you are human,” I tell him.

He gives me a smooth ride.

Luis is from Portugal when he brings me back to my room through the same warren of tunnels. He takes the cattle car from its parking space. Another driver is backing out a second cattle car.

“Do you want to drag?” he asks the driver. They are going in different directions.

We talk about the cost of gaining Swiss nationality.

I don’t take the cattle car to the operating theatre. Vincenze is my porter and he uses my bed. He’s from Sicily with rainy day gray eyes and lashes that women usually glue on. His black hair falls over one eye and curls over the collar of his hospital coat.

No woman heading for breast surgery should have such lascivious thoughts for a man a third of her age, but then again, maybe she should. George Clooney, you’ve been replaced.

He stays and chats with me until the anesthesiologist arrives. Before going he pats my arm and tells me not to worry. “You’re in good hands.”

I am and have been.


Who says hospital food isn’t any good? Not at HUG. Except for the day of the operation, I had wonderful things to eat. Here's a sample.

1. Lentils with slivers of onions and carrots, plus the local sausage. Mango sherbet.
Rabbit Provencal, fennel, potatoes, carrots, banana

2. Vegetable galette in a red pepper sauce, julienne assorted veggies, cheese, pear

3. Beef Stroganoff, assortment of squashes, potatoes with sage, vanilla ice cream

4. Poached eggs in a béchamel sauce lightly seasoned with nutmeg, rice with finely chopped veggies, apple/pear sauce.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

I am okay

This was the most fascinatingexperiencing and I will blog next week when I get home.

The lymph nodes were NOT involved so even though I will still have chemo and radiation in case one of those little suckers escaped the surgeon's murder, the rest of them are in the trash where they belong.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

A good use for cancer

My housemate is hard to give gifts to. Because I knew she was upset at having broken her electric pepper mill, I decided to replace it. But I needed a story to make her accept it. Here it is…

“I was in Manora today and they were holding two drawings. One was only for women with cancer of the left breast and the prize was an electric salt mill. The other was only for women with cancer of the right breast, and the prize was a pepper mill. What do you know? I won!”

She accepted it.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

The question don't fit

I filled out the questionnaire for the pain study that I will participate in to see how women react to pain during breast cancer surgery.

It was easy to rate the level of pain for such things as hitting your funny bone and biting your tongue.

Where I ran into problem were the mood questions all of which were leaning toward the negative such as I did not feel too badly this week.

There was nothing to describe that I had moments of sheer joy this week and great pleasure. I don't expect questions such as did the Film Festival make you happy, sad, etc. but the mood of spending time watching six films, talking to two lovely friends while eating Italian food on a sunlit terrace, listening to the directors, feeling the buzz of the festival brought me a great moment of happiness.

Maybe I'm unrealistic to be undergoing so much pleasure at a time that is traumatic and frightening. Negative what ifs do enter my head usually in the middle of the night when I wake up because my bladder refuses to let me sleep. I think I'm recognizing those moments and rolling with them. At the same time, I'll be damned if I will let them stop me from flipping the emotional coin to the other side.

Small world

I'm slowly getting caught up on telling people about my cancer. Short of taking ads out in L'Independent, Tribune de Genève, Boston Globe it is both a slow and fast process. I do not want to put it on facebook, but I've no problems referring this site on my other expatwriter blog.

My housemate points out the alternative way to deal with it would have been to tell no one, but then again if I had friends with breast cancer I would want to know if only to give them a hug and hopefully anything else I could do, although their wishes in that case would supersede mine. In any case it is a lousy way to get attention from your friends, but then again, my friends and I've shared much over the years.

A telephone call from my best friend since high school brought real joy. We had shared so much negativity at one period that when things were going well for both of us, and we hadn't talked, she called to remind me we were more than FOUL weather friends.

The way the word is spreading could make for a communication dissertation. Today I got an email from one of my online writing friends, a woman I've never met but talked to on the phone. In the group are people from the UK, US, Germany, Israel, Switzerland, France.

How had she heard? She had been at a workshop in the States led by the founder and spirit of the Geneva Writers Group. I had told her she would be inspired and she was so the message was two about me and one about the wonderful workshop.

And in the emails I've been getting, the phone conversations concerning Cammy Beck which is the name given to those little suckers by my housemate and I after a discussion that some year we will have a moratorium on the words cancer and oncologist not just for me but for all our friends and family who've shared the same experience.

The realization that in the four houses in my immediate neighbourhood with eight adults, there have been six cases of cancer is a bit daunting. I don't think it is like the W.R. Grace in Woburn years ago for there is no factory dumping chemicals. It is just a reminder that what I'm going through is shared by more people than it should be.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

I've got a date

Unfortunately it is not with George Clooney...

I report to the hospital HUG 8 a.m. April 14th.


Wednesday, April 6, 2011


Maybe some day I’ll learn that what I plan doesn’t happen and what I don’t plan for does.

For example: after helping a partner with his kids going through all the things that adolescents go through I was prepared for my daughter’s teenage years. She did none of the things the others did but picked her own little specialty. Overall, I got off real easy.

Likewise, I always thought the illnesses that would attack were heart, glaucoma, dementia. I never ever thought cancer would be, not that I was immortal but that there were only two cases in the entire family.

I have been really touched by my fellow writers who have sent so many lovely messages. All but one suggested a blog. It is true as writers when we writers go through anything negative or positive, it is almost impossible not to write about it, be it fiction, non-fiction, journal, blog or just the words running around in our head.

I’m still feeling lucky (with the exception of missing that one-on-one interview with Gordon Brown) that I am where I am. Even finding a managing editor for the newsletter right before I needed it was a stroke of luck. Amazing how much pressure that takes off me.

As the old line goes, if you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans. I'm through planning. Let the universe decide.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Art school or hospital?

When I was in fifth grade my mother approached Miss Graham, the principle, and chided her over my bad spelling.
“Donna-Lane won’t need to spell. She’ll have a secretary,” Miss Graham said.
“And how will she know if the secretary is spelling correctly?” my mother countered.
Fast forward. I’m sixteen and working as a reporter on the same daily newspaper as my mother. Some of the reporters think my mother is writing my articles.
The editor, Fred Cole, who could be played by a grumpy Spencer Tracey, growled, “Donna-Lane writes her own stuff. Kid can’t spell. Mother can spell.”
There should be a shrine erected for the inventor of spell check.
Two words I always spell wrong are anethsiologist and ocnologist (anesthesiologist and oncologist thank you spell check). Both words have been far too frequent in my vocabulary.
Today I spent a couple of hours at the hospital meeting with those unspellable titles along with a Nurse C whose son has written his first novel. Almost each person I meet with draws my breast as they explain what they are about to do to me. I’m not sure if I’m in a hospital or an art school.
They are more concerned than I am about possible removal and/or scarring. I try and explain how they are knew for me and also I’m not looking for a new lover, so although I would like beautiful breasts, I’ve never had them. I can cope. I don’t want to hurt their feelings.
They also want me to take part in a study on how women deal with pain. I’ll be happy to do that. It makes this whole situation at least productive.
I don’t have a date yet, the only downside, but I am still so impressed with the system, the time they take, the questions they are willing to answer (they are almost disappointed if I don’t have more, but then I have my wonderful housemate who has been there, done that, and doesn’t wear the T-shirt)
The hospital is called HUG. Now any hospital with that name has to have a lot going for it.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Getting used to the idea

Seeing the letter that I needed to do follow up on my free mammogram was a shock. The follow up brought even worse news. There were nasty little cells that if they had a birthday cake would have no more than two candles thanks to the free biannual mammograms which is part of the advantages of living in Geneva.

I do not wish to minimize the seriousness of having those little bastards in my body. On the other hand I am 68 and three quarters. I’ve lived a life beyond blessed and it is only greediness that makes me want more, more, more…more writing, more travelling, more learning. More time with my daughter, my friends. However, if a truck were to hit me tomorrow, I have no regrets no I-wish-I’d-dones (maybe a few I-wish-I-hadn'ts).

Of course I could have chosen to ignore the little bastards, which would be stupid, or I can make sure they never see a birthday cake with three candles and in the process of getting rid of them and any of their friends they may have, I can make this a fun and interesting experience.

No, I’m not in denial. In my passion to live life to the fullest, I need to live the negatives to the fullest too.

Already the doctor who did the biopsy and I had a wonderful conversation. He wanted to practice his English and told me his daughter was at BU on Comm Ave. when he learned I was from Boston. The BU and Comm Ave. were dead giveaways that he knew the area. That I went to the same School of Communication at Boston University on Commonwealth Avenue as she was doing forged a bond.

He showed me two mini-mini rice grains that he pulled out of my right breast for the biopsy. That’s two less I need to get rid off.

Having a housemate who had been through it years ago, having her having been a godmother to Anglophone breast cancer patients is a great plus.

The team I’ve met with at the Hospital makes me so grateful I am here. The young doctor in charge will go to the same hospital for two years next year that my housemate’s sister was treated at. How much more small world can it get?

There is no rush to throw you out the door after surgery. A nurse is assigned to you throughout.

The doctor told me that the treatment is to remove the cells, check the lymph nodes and then if they are clean, leave the rest of the lymph nodes. If they are not clean, they pull them out too.

She tried to reassure me about keeping my breast. I had to explain to her that up until ten years ago, I didn’t even need a bra. It had nothing to do with being a feminist. There was nothing to need it for.

The doctor explains that surgery might raise the breast a bit, but it is the lower of the two. She also explains that if the breast were to be removed it is considered necessary to reconstruct not cosmetic so insurance covers it.

How lucky am I that I am in the Swiss medical system?

The hard part so far was telling my daughter. I want to make sure she doesn’t hear prior to a major interview, but when that was over, I shared the information with her.

A friend and I go for a walk along the lake. “I tell her how it seems every doctor I see tells me “Vous êtes drole.”

“You are funny,” she tells me. “You should write this. She comes up with the title.
My writing mate in Vienna tells me I should blog the experience. We writers have verbal diarrhea of the fingers whenever we sit at the key board.

Am I happy about this?


Will I make the best of it?

As they used to say in the long distant past--you bet your sweet bippy!