Unravel Cancer: Experiences with family battling cancer: January 2010
18 January 2010
22:16   Homage to Grandma

Yesterday was the two-year anniversary of my grandmother's passing, my dad's mom. I had forgotten all about it, even after posting to another person's blog about her own grandma. Here is her story:

My grandmother was brought to this country when she was very young, maybe only 1-year old, by my great-grandmother. They lived in a Northside Chicago Polish neighborhood, until a cousin ventured to the Southside near Indiana, where a new Polish neighborhood was forming, amongst all the factories. My grandmother's family soon followed.

My grandmother dropped out of the 6th grade to work at an Hungarian merchandise store. There she learned all about business. She continued to work to support the family, until she met my grandfather & married. The two families offered the couple enough money to buy a tavern in the neighborhood, which they ran for almost 50 years.

My grandmother & grandfather met at a dance hall in the 1930's. She always told me, "He was such a catch." Indeed he was, for my grandmother was no angel. She was a fierce businesswoman at a time when women in business were looked down upon. After all, she had to deal with a lot of drunks at the bar...

The tavern building was also a type of boarding house/hotel place. She did laundry and bedding for an additional charge to the residents. She even held the pay of some of the factory workers, and allotted it out to them as needed for things. Often, they spent most of it at the tavern, and would ring up debt to my grandparents every week...

During Prohibition, family legend has it that my grandparents were running moonshine for Al Capone's gang. Before my grandparents met, my grandfather was the hooch driver into the neighboring states, Indiana, Michigan, and Wisconsin, for his family's operation. Grandma often told me about the time when the war ended, and they were the only tavern for many miles that had bootlegged whisky. She would sell it out the backdoor of the tavern, and stuff the money into the pockets of her housecoat. By the end of the first day, her pockets were overflowing with cash. "Out to here", she would make a big circle with her arms around her belly.

My grandmother was a b*&^% on wheels until around 90 years old. She herself was an alcoholic, and really only stopped drinking a few years before my grandfather passed away in 1996. A master of manipulation, she was as charming and sweet as a snake-oil salesmen when she wanted something from you, but mean as a viper when you crossed her. One of my earliest memories of her was when she swiped my bottom and threw me on the small couch in the corner nook of the tavern backroom. It was a time out I never forgot. By that time, she had raised her own three children, as well as tended to many nieces, nephews, grandchildren, and children of friends in the neighborhood. She was pretty much over it. I remember her always complaining to my dad about me whenever we came over for Sunday supper!

However, she was the best cook! Everything had full-on fat and lots of butter, how we should all be eating anyway. We're all gonna die eventually, why prolong it? If eating more butter means taking 10 years off my life, I'll take the butter.

But I digress.

Grandma was the best fry-cook this side of the Atlantic. She put Southern fryers to shame. We had fried chicken, fried shrimp, fried perogis, fried pork chops. You name it, she fried it. It's not a wonder my poor grandfather suffered 4 heart attacks & a stroke before he finally kicked it. And all the breadings were done by hand. She used a special kind of bread made locally in Chicago, Gonella bread, and dried it just so for the breadcrumbs. And she only used the crust. This fried feast was on top of all the Polish cooking, like sausage borscht (our family's recipe), perogis, chicken & dumpling soup, fried cabbage, sausage & sauerkraut, etc. that she made. And then, she concocted her own versions of American classics like cole slaw and potato salad.

According to another family legend, (I use "legend" because there is only circumstantial claims that back these stories up) one of Al Capone's henchmen that rose fairly high in the South Side ranks really liked Grandma's fried fish. The tavern always hosted a large fish fry on Lenten Fridays. Partly, or possibly mainly, how they got the bootleg whisky, and survived during Prohibition, was due to this Heavy's penchant for breaded & fried fish. A way to a man's heart...

Grandma's favorite game was pinochle. It was the card game most Poles played in the neighborhood. There were always two decks lying around on the bar.

Back in the day, taverns were family places, and it was common to have kids around. My dad & aunts all grew up in the bar, and helped out at young ages. When we'd come to visit, my brothers and I would run around, play at the pool table, and the mechanical bowling machine. There was a park across the street, and my Grandpa often took us there. It was a relief to him to have some fresh air & fun with us kids. It also got us out of Grandma's hair.

Even after Grandpa died, Grandma was a feisty old bird. She always wanted things her way. My angel of an aunt was her caretaker for almost 10 years after Grandpa's passing. It wasn't until her health took a turn for the worse, and we were forced to put her in assisted living, did my grandmother's attitude finally cow. Being forced to give up her freedom was the thing that finally humbled her.

When she first got to the home, I was living in the Bay Area by then, so I called her every weekend to check up on her. She complained that she missed walking down to the beauty parlor to get her hair done, and chat with the neighborhood ladies. She also missed walking to church. She would walk the 3-4 blocks to mass every Sunday, and then also attend all the other prayer services during the week. Bless her heart, even at 89 years old, she would only accept using a cane to walk, and would amble down the street in the dead of Chicago Winter on the icy sidewalks to visit her friends, or see the priest. Like I said, she was a feisty old bird.

A year or so after moving into assisted living, she needed the official nursing home care. Her legs had gotten bad enough that she needed a walker (which she always called the "buggy"), and she needed oxygen more & more each day from her emphysema. Although not a smoker, she contracted it from the second-hand smoke in the bar all those years.

In the last four years of her life, my grandmother and I became very close. I asked her alot about business, and about how to make it in a "man's world". She told me alot of the story I wrote for you today. She offered me unconditional love, and prayed the rosary for me several times a day. I could tell her about family matters, and get wisdom & faith at a truly godly scale. She had more faith in God than Pope John Paul II. We all joked at the funeral that we should use the last of her money to apply for sainthood.

One of the things I miss most about her, was her standard greeting on the phone, "It's so good to hear your voice!". I often say that now to friends and loved ones, and sometimes it stops people in their tracks. They probably never heard someone say such a welcoming & sweet thing before. We need to welcome & be sweet with one another more than ever in today's day...

My grandmother always wanted a better life for me than what she had. Both grandparents worked night & day in the tavern, socking money away as fast as they could get their hands on it. Not only did their three children get college educations, their grandkids did too. In earlier years, she would always give us grandkids the "secret handshake" with a 10 or a 20 in her palm. At the end, she would "sweet-talk" (as she put it) the nurses into giving her extra fruit. She would then press it upon us before we left from a visit. She had nothing to give, but she always wanted to give us something, even if it was an apple.

I'll never forget that generosity, and the sweetness of her voice. The last Christmas before she passed, my dad and I were driving Grandma to my aunt's house for supper. Dad put on a polka CD sung in Polish in the car stereo. Grandma started singing along and bopping her head back & forth like she was a little girl. She was so carefree, even at 94.

Grandma knew she was failing. She held on for all of us to enjoy one more holiday season with her, one more round of my dad's goofy photos, one more round of my aunt's fabulous sausage borscht. She made a point of making sure all the out-of-town visitors were back home, and the grandkids were back at school when she finally let go. My aunt who was the caretaker was incensed that she couldn't be there for the final days. But we all knew that none of us would have let our family's prayer-warrior go without a fight. For she taught all us women in the family how to be fighters, and how to get what we wanted. She taught us how to think of others before ourselves, give with no strings attached, and keep giving to the ones you love no matter what. She taught us that prayer can truly solve all your problems, and create miracles. And, she taught us that you can even re-invent yourself at 90.

Grandma and I still talk often. There have been many occasions where I'm in a sticky situation at work, and ask her for help. Since she was so good at picking the "catch" of my grandpa, I often ask her to pick one for me too. In the most trying times of caretaking for my mother last year, she was by my side whispering the rosary in Polish, praying for me.

As the frenzy of youth continues to fade (thankfully), and more light-hearted wisdom float in, I use her favorite phrase often, "Isn't that somethin'?"

I love you, Grandma.

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17 January 2010
23:21   Intensity

This ain't no Calvin Klein perfume ad, folks. This is the real deal.

You know how people use common phrases to talk about their current state like, "I was so nervous", or "He put my nerves on edge" or "Jangled my nerves"? Well, I know the origin of these phrases now. It comes from injuries to the central nervous system, like the whiplash I got two weeks ago.

It happened, sadly, from a freak hugging accident. A friend went to pick me up off the ground, and did so in such a way that I startled, resisted, and my head went flopping over my back like a dead fish. A bummer on many levels.

It's taken til now for me to speak about it because my experiences after that are what were the most challenging.

Apparently I had a cold coming on. The whiplash prevented my lymph system from working properly, and the cold germs got stuck in my upper body. My head & lungs became very infected. From an Eastern medicine perspective, my heart and liver were also weakened, along with my blood.

Emotionally, what triggered it was an incident that happened with my boss. On Day 3 of the whiplash, I took the risk of showing up at work for a few meetings with him. I don't want to go into all the details, but let's just say he was unhappy about my injury, and made sure that his anxiety & fear were heavily communicated in my direction.

By the evening, I was so ill my cranio-sacral bodyworker refused to see me. She said anything she did would make me worse, and that I needed to treat the infection ASAP. The next day I dragged my weary self to my acupuncture/herbal doctor. My blood pressure was so low by the time I got there, she diagnosed me with hypotension.

Meanwhile, I kept having a severe anger & rage reaction. Even my roommate said my seemingly uncontrollable spiral downward into anger was "uncharacteristic". While at the Eastern medicine doctor's office, she confirmed that the heat in my body would cause an anger reaction. The needles she put in that day helped me tremendously to start feeling better. The heat began to dissipate, and my sinus' finally began to drain. Boogers be gone!

It wasn't til a week later that I was well enough to receive bodywork. When I explained my emotionally reactive state to my massage therapist, she asked me, "Do you remember any times in childhood where your body was jarred, and it was against your will & you thought it was unfair?" Tears began flooding down my face as I replied, "It wasn't just one memory, it was 1,000's of memories. That was my entire childhood!"

I further explained my father's alcoholism, the physical abuse from him, as well as the non-stop rough-housing from my brothers. This was on top of the violation of sexual & physical abuse from my uncle when I was very young. On top of all this physical stuff, was the mental/emotional shutout I experienced from my brothers & my parents both. I didn't find my voice until high school, and by then I was so pent up with rage at being unseen, unheard, un-validated for so long that nobody wanted to listen to me then, either. Nobody likes hearing a teenager scream.

It's so hard to describe what this was like, day in & day out. That's not to say there weren't times of levity & fun. But, there was such little support of my person-hood, my autonomy, and my right to a healthy physical environment. My poor mother was doing the best she could. We had many wonderful moments together, but she only had so much bandwidth to defend me against my brothers' bullying & dominance. I told my roommate later, "Shit rolls down hill, and I was at the bottom of the hill."

By the age of 10, I had learned my feelings, thoughts, and opinions weren't valid. I learned to doubt my feelings, to doubt reality. I learned men were scary & bad. I learned my body was dirty, and would betray the emotions & vulnerability I held inside if I didn't control it. I learned that showing vulnerability meant others would prey on me. I learned nobody was safe, even family. These simply aren't the skills a child needs to launch successfully into adulthood.

What my bodyworker explained was the combination of whiplash and emotional battering from my boss caused a trauma reaction. It was like I had PTSD. Honestly, it was one of the scariest things I've ever witnessed myself doing. I truly had no control over my emotional state at all.

There has not been much for me to do to overcome this, except recognize it, keep reminding myself that I'm an adult, that none of the things that happened back then are happening now, and that I am safe, despite my mind's desire to think otherwise. Essentially, staying in the present moment has been my only salvation.

However! This is not a bad thing, and I'll tell you why: it's taught me how much unresolved stuff still lurks in my psyche. It taught me how much of my past I was putting on my boss. It taught me how much my nerves were on edge all the time from stress. But, that the stress was something I was encouraging, and bringing into my life by not taking care of myself. (That also includes saying the word "no" to my boss, or to work situations.) Most importantly, it taught me how much I ignored my basic needs, and pushed myself too hard.

Being horizontal for several days in a row was quite humbling. I had to listen to my body's need to lie down, no matter what. I had to sleep when I needed to sleep, whether I wanted to or not.

Be careful what you wish for! On the top of my New Year's Resolution list was "I want to slow down this year, for real." Well, I've been pretty darn slow these last two weeks, but it's ok. I'm getting used to it. I told my boss succinctly what I can & can't do, and when I can't or can go into the office. I asked my roommate & friends to help with picking things up, so I don't strain my back. I've stayed away from any physical sports activities (the hardest part for sure). I've been watching lots of NHL games online. I've fixed up my resume. I've tidied up my room. Bought an electric blanket to help with the chilly Winter nights. And I'm getting back into cooking. Oh, and catching up on my light reading.

AND, I've been writing a lot! I'm continuing to record jokes & performance ideas for some comedy I'd like to do. These horizontal days have not been wasted, for sure.

The best part, though, is I learned to see yet another area where my mind plays tricks on me. The reality is that I'm safe & sound and surrounded by wonderful, loving friends. Even my crabby boss doesn't put me in any immediate life or death danger. But my mind thinks otherwise. My mind thinks my vulnerability will result in pain, suffering, or possibly even death. It's not true, and I see how this hidden belief has hindered many areas of my life.

It's caused me not to believe I have something to write, something to say on a stage, or something to teach others. It's caused me to believe my career is fulfilling, when it isn't. It's caused me to "settle" for this career, when it's not what I want. Most importantly, it's caused me to sabotage just about every love relationship I've tried. The fears I have around my own safety and men clearly run roots very deep into my psychic soil.

All in all, it's been a good experience. Anything that is this rich & deeply revealing about myself is a good idea, in my book. Truthfully, I am grateful that this whiplash happened to me, at this time in my life. Any chance to set off the wick that will lead to an emotional catharsis fireworks explosion always results in an "Ooh" and "Ahh" of delight at the end, when I see the ball of color floating in the sky.

Alright that last metaphor was a stretch - time to go to sleep.

One last thing: had all the cancer & crazy challenges last year not happened, my understanding and awareness in this circumstance would not be so expansive. Another moment of gratitude...

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09:56   Julie and Julia

On the recommendation of my aunt, I rented "Julie & Julia" the other night. It was really cute, but also inspiring.

The "making of" special feature on the DVD really hit it home: the common thing about these two women was their passion, not only for cooking, but also for life. Julia had a passion for everything. Julie's life was lacking passion, and she used the passion of Julia Child to help inspire her.

But before I get into the passion part, one area of the film struck me. It was the scene where "Julie" and her husband had a fight, and she realized how self-absorbed she had become from doing her blog project.

Writing about one's own experience truly launched into popularity in the 21st Century with the technology behind blogging. Sometimes I wonder if writing perpetuates wallowing. The same aunt & I had a laugh about how little we were Facebook-ing, Twitter-ing, and email-ing over the holiday break. She commented, "Yeah - isn't it nice to actually live your life instead of write about it?"

While my blog on cancer is not as popular as some, my intention is to help others. Even if only one other person reads this, and concludes their whole life doesn't have to come to a miserable end & the universe come crashing down because their loved one got cancer, then I have been of service.

While Julia Child certainly had a passion for food, her drive was to bring this passion to others through her cookbook, and subsequent television show. And even though Julie Powell's initial interest was to juice up her stagnate life, her writings went on to inspire others.

Writing is one of my passions, so I carry on, whether unknown & nameless or not. The more I focus my effort on what makes me happy, the more I can be of service to others, especially those in need, like my mom & brother.

Be that as it may, let it be known to all that I'm fully aware of how lucky I am. Both my family members are still alive, and they may continue to live several years. We have an opportunity to get to know one another in a profoundly different way. There is much to be grateful for in all our lives. Whether it's your family or friend who has cancer, or you yourself, if you are still alive today, it's cause for celebration.

Yay! Three cheers for being alive!

Hip hip hooray!
Hip hip hooray!
Hip hip hooray!

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16 January 2010
12:58   Whiplash: A gift

I'm finally on the mend, and feeling able to talk about my experience of this whiplash injury. It had been quite an intense time, so, I'll break up the posts into thought modules.

On the whole, the injury is bringing me a tremendous amount of awareness about my body. More & more, I'm seeing how much I am afraid to be present in my body. The habits of my survival from childhood are harder to break than I expected.

There have been several moments where I slid into "pity-party". But, what kept me hopeful & positive this week were two things I kept writing on my daily Gratitude List: "I don't have cancer", and "I have the full working use of all my limbs".

It reminded me, yet again, how lucky I am to not have to take Temodar once a week for 12 months. It reminded me that I haven't had any surgeries, or have had body parts radiated. It reminded me that I'm not quadriplegic. And, that with a fully functioning body, I have no excuse to whine. Not that my experience wasn't tough, but all in all wallowing does no good.

In fact, it reminded me that my family getting cancer is a gift, too. I wouldn't be where I am today, more emotionally stronger, more aware of the tricks my mind plays, more aware of my body, choosing to be happy every day.

Have to run out to hit the Farmer's Market before it closes, but I'll be back to report more on all these themes in the next day.

For now, I thank whoever is out there, Higher Power, God, Universe, Bob, Whatever, for a tremendously beautiful experience through body pain, discomfort, & awareness.

"Julie & Julia"
"Sleepless in California"
"My Unproven Opinion"

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12:56   Yikes!

As you can see, I'm having "image issues" with my blog. Just sent an email to my pal who is an awesome consultant on these things. Hopefully an answer will come soon.

If anyone else out there know how to easily fix this HTML problem, let me know.

Thanks for your patience!

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08 January 2010
19:53   Mom & Bro Update

Just realized I talk a lot about myself on this blog, but there have been lots of good things going for my mom & brother.

My brother finally skied before Christmas! This is a huge psychological hurdle, more so than physical. (Although the physical challenge was certainly there). He downhill skied with his boys, then cross-country skied the next day. Everyone was so thrilled to hear about it. The fact that he's so motivated to get back in the saddle is a great sign. It's great to hear he's such a fighter.

My mom is also doing well. She's on her Temidar this week, but still doing ok. She took a break from the physical therapy for a week, because she was kinda burnt out about it. It's not that the therapy itself isn't working, but the hassle of the whole thing with timing, etc., had started to wear on her. From here, she'll be going down to 2 days/ week.

It's so great that they are both still here, and their courageous struggle continues to inspire me.

This week was a bad one for me physically, and there were many times when I recalled things they had said, or became thankful for my good health despite the current circumstances.

I had a freak whiplash accident last Sunday from a friend who was trying to give me a bear hug & lift me off the ground. She caught me off guard, and maybe I was trying to resist or something, and my head flopped backward like a dead fish.

Then, the whiplash caused this horrible reaction to a cold I apparently had coming on. Probably cuz I skied so hard the day before leaving CO, then hopped on a plane. What's up with this not being 25 years old anymore? Man, my body can't handle the same stuff like it used to...

Anyway, despite the whiplash causing cold complications resulting in a massive infection & low blood pressure and just all-around misery, I thought many times, "Well, at least I'm not crippled. I have feeling in my hands & feet, not like my brother." And then today, I recalled my mom's positive thinking stuff, and was imagining my in-breath being white light, and my out-breath being smokey grey. It was a meditation technique I learned in yoga class.

All in all, things could be a million times worse. Sure enough, after staying positive this last day, I finally rallied this afternoon. The mind is an incredibly powerful thing.

Yesterday I caught the tail-end of a story on the BBC about a fully quadriplegic man who sailed his sailboat across the ocean to the Caribbean back to the same beach which was the scene of the diving accident that caused his paralysis. Can you believe it? His name is Goeff Holt, and his feat truly gives the rest of us no excuse.

Yeah, maybe somebody ran over your cat today, or you are too sick to go on a ski trip (my situation for next week's trip - wah), or your boss is crabbing at you (like mine is), or your head is stuffed full of boogers (like mine was), but it could be worse! You could have cancer, or be quadriplegic or be dead.

The friend that hugged me feels super guilty, but I keep telling her, "Don't sweat it. Everything happens for a reason." Not sure what the reason is for my mom & brother's cancer, or for me being flat on my back for a week, but more will be revealed. All of these incidents have something in common: they give us a chance to get to know ourselves. Being so slow & weak, & unable to do things is forcing me to be my own best friend, and take _super_ good care of myself. This is always a good thing.

So, life marches on, and everything's going to be great. I can just feel it, like the pounding of the drummers in my head earlier this afternoon... :)

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about this blog

I'm a 30-something professional woman who's mother & brother were both diagnosed with Grade 3 Astrocytoma tumors within about a week of each other. My mother's tumor is in her brain, and my brother's tumor is in his spinal cord, causing him to lose feeling in his arms & legs. These writings are about my experiences dealing with them, coping, loving them, loving myself, and living my life knowing that they are both dying. I hope you find inspiration and courage from my writings to help you get through whatever is going on in your life.

Lady Vroom


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