Saturday, January 29, 2011

The Velveteen Grapefruit and the Practice of Pain

At the bar the other night (The bar!  How novel, to go to the bar again!), a friend was telling me about his aversion to brown spots on bananas.  It seems that he nursed many a high school hangover working at an ice cream parlor where his job was to un-sheath over-ripe bananas in a cloud of fruit flies, and he finds himself transported to that place whenever he encounters the slightest hint of senescence.

Food associations have been on my mind lately.  The other morning I peeled a grapefruit, and as I began to eat it, I found myself back on Mercy 3B, in that constant awareness of the struggle for sustenance and the psychic significance of wholesome food.  Will a grapefruit always take me there?  I am reminded of the velveteen rabbit in the famous children's story, who carried the boy's illness for him and was rewarded for his devotion by being tossed on the burn pile.  Is there a kitchen-magic fairy who will take away the cancer-embodying grapefruits and turn them into Real?
Apotheosis of the Grapefruit
 I adore grapefruits, their perfect play of bitter and sweet.  Wallace adores them too; he would eat a dozen a day if I could afford them.  They remind me of my grandmother, with whom I also associate crisply made beds of ancient, silky sheets, and the Reader's Digest.  Did she even get the Reader's Digest?  I don't know.  Certainly she got Yankee Magazine; if you knew her you would understand the necessity of this.  As for Reader's Digest, I can't remember, but it's an association nonetheless.  I digress; allies and detractors alike will tell you that I am a terrible one for digressions.  That and hyperbole.  But I digress further, and now this has gotten awfully self-conscious.

Probably, I should not have been at the bar.  Certainly my struggling immune system does not require fancy beers and pub food, but my soul does so I favored it for the night over my other concerns.  The cold that became a sinus infection became an ear infection and has now become a ruptured eardrum.  My homeopath says this is all wonderful; having been relieved of its responsibilities to manage my errant and murderous marrow, it can turn its attention to those petty punks, the vulgar viruses.  I can be rebuilt.  The sinus infection was rather mundane, just days of relentless headaches and green slime.  On the other hand, the ear infection was exciting and dramatic.  I bounded from my bed, shrieking in agony, and rifled through my home remedies in a madness of pain.  Imagine my kitchen as the cinema laboratory of a crazed scientist: innumerable little vials, amorphous blobs infusing in beakers, flasks lying broken in pools of oddly-colored and viscous liquids.  While hoping for something to take effect, I propped myself up in the guest bed and waited for the cleansing fever to come wash away the bacteria.

Pain is wonderfully clarifying; it is a great tool for meditative focus.  When one is experiencing acute and piercing pain, one does not worry about the disintegration of wealth or the violent death throes of the empire.  One does not dwell on the obstinacy of the family budget or the inexorable aging of one's beloved automobile.  Nor does the mind linger on whether to start a business or move the whole family onto a boat and sail to Tahiti.  There is no anxiety in a week's worth of unopened mail or the prospect of managing the care of two small children on an hour of sleep.  There is just pain, exquisite and sublime, offering a respite for the hamster on the wheel in my head.  So bitter, so sweet.

Sunday, January 23, 2011


I grew up in southern New Hampshire.  My memories are of hiking in the shadows of the great naked shoulders and vertebrae of the earth, swimming in the pools that collect in her dimples, picking strawberries in the grassy fields that clothe her.  As an adult I find myself in Maine, perched on her knuckles as she dips lazy fingers in the sea. 
Initially, I had intended a different topic for this week's post.  But Friday night, as I was walking down our road from a neighbors', the full moon casting blue shadows on the snow, I came over the ridge and saw our house nestled in the curve.  John made it home first and the lights were on, inside and out, icicles glittered from the eaves under a snow-laden roof, the path to the door was neatly shoveled between two-foot-high banks of snow; it looked as if Mrs. Claus herself would meet me with a tray of tea or a cup of hot chocolate.  This is home.
This has been a year of finding all the homes in my life.  There are the many homes of my past, where friends and family still reside or share memories.  There is the home of my physical present, this cottage by a cove.  There is the home in myself, a place I have found anew, or maybe for the first time, this past year.  Every time I meet someone since we moved here, I am struck by the realization that it is someone I am supposed to know; and as the heart can stretch to make space, even demand it, for each new child, so it does for each new friend. 
We are in the midst of a cold snap; to be out by the cove today we could have been on some Alaskan shore, trees heavy with snow in the weak light and not a soul to be seen.  Nonetheless, my winter's come and gone already; I am home, nourished in this place.

Sunday, January 16, 2011


This past Thursday, Dr. Inhorn called with the official pathologist's report: clean marrow!  The funny thing is, I hesitate with the exclamation point.  This whole process has become part of my life and my story; any news he had would be "good" news to me.  It is true that I expected this result and so did he; both my doctor and another oncologist on the team had said they were confident that we would see remission, and I don't think of oncologists as being overly sanguine in their outlook.

Does that mean this experience with cancer is over?  Well, yes and no.   I am finished with chemotherapy and blood transfusions; there will be follow-up blood counts and office visits but no more treatment.  The leukemia is gone, or at least all its symptoms are.  My immune system, on the other hand, is skewed beyond recognition.  My body had tremendous reserves, and I tried to give it the best tools available, to get through the toxic assault, but now it is used up.  I have had two bad colds in the past month, the second of which appears to be turning into a sinus infection.  Some nights I hardly sleep at all.  This is the part of the nourishing path on which I now embark, to heal myself and corral resources to help others do the same.

During my hospitalizations, the nurses and doctors would comment on how well I was tolerating the chemo.  My hair never completely fell out, and grew back quite quickly.  My menstrual cycle has started again, which can take up to a year.  The many side effects of chemotherapy were not an issue for me, except in a few minor cases.  After my initial treatment, I never got any further infections.  I credit this to factors both beyond and within my influence.  As to my genetic makeup and good fortune, I can only be grateful.  But when I first found out I was sick, before I decided to undertake chemo, I took immediate and drastic action to give my body some tools to fight the illness.

My interest in fundamental health and genuine nutrition (as opposed to what I think passes for both from a conventional medical point of view) began long before my diagnosis.  During my first pregnancy I had a lot of metabolic issues, and after my son was born I felt I had a responsibility to build my knowledge of how to keep my family healthy.  That's when I discovered traditional diets and the healing power of food.  I know that "we are what we eat," but I had never thought very hard about it before.  What we ingest, intentionally or environmentally, is the primary material for building our bodies.  If those building materials are full of toxins, and devoid of nutritional compounds, our bodies won't work.

Over the past several years I have read quite a bit about building baseline health and healing illness with food.  It is something I plan to delve into in many future posts.  For the remainder of this post, I want to write about what I think got me through my treatment.

When I found out I was sick I started looking up nutritional treatments for cancer and leukemia.  While I was unable to find anyone who could testify to managing acute leukemia without chemotherapy, I did find a lot of discussions about other (tumor) types of cancer.  Based on the work of Dr. Kelly, The Gerson Institute and the research available at Green Med Info, I eliminated caffeine, sugar, alcohol, processed carbohydrates and other processed foods, and embarked on a raw diet that included liver and eggs.  When I entered the hospital, I was still trying to maintain this diet, but that was impossible in that environment.  Furthermore, I was losing weight and finding it challenging to meet my caloric needs.  Nonetheless, the diet acted as a cleansing fast and I know that my ability to tolerate the intense induction chemotherapy was related to this detoxification of my body.  As the tumor cancers behave differently than the blood cancers (with any illness I believe it is important that the patient learn about the science of the disease, and there are numerous reputable sources of this information on the web and in libraries), they seem to respond to a different type of diet.  Once I learned about the work of Dr. Nicholas Gonzalez and his recommendations for blood cancers, I shifted my diet to incorporate elements that would balance my overactive parasympathetic nervous system, rather than treating an overactive sympathetic nervous system, a key feature of tumor cancers.  I also began working with a classical homeopath in Portland, Maine, Dr. Nancy Frederick.

I noticed immediate improvement.  As soon as I started a diet heavy in meat and light in potassium, my body felt stronger and more balanced.  When coupled with the key traditional food recommendations of fermented foods and bone broths or stocks, my immune system was able to overcome serious bacterial and viral challenges, despite my extremely low white blood counts (this is a condition called neutropenia; due to the risk of infection, neutropenic patients are not supposed to eat ANY raw foods.  Fortunately my doctor was supportive of my dietary choices and did not insist on this diet!).  By avoiding sugar and caffeine, as well as most refined carbohydrates, I was able to keep the mouth and intestinal irritation to a minimum, and avoid some of the most unpleasant of the chemo side-effects.  Once I began the homeopathic remedy, my metabolism shifted again, into more normal nutritional demands, and I was able to cut back drastically on meat intake (I like meat, don't misunderstand me, but red meat three times a day is a bit intense).

There are other factors that led to my recovery, and there is much more to discuss on the nutritional front.  This post is probably long enough for today, however.  I hope that others who have experience with nutrition and illness will comment here and help me develop this blog as an emotional and physical resource for people dealing with serious diseases.  Fresh air and exercise are also important, so now it is time to leave the computer...

Sunday, January 9, 2011

The Circle

Where I live the trees just cling to the ledge in shallow soil; when winter winds howl in the rigging they are readily unmoored.  But the woods are so dense here that they remain, heeled to sixty degrees against their neighbors; when the spring returns they leaf out again and stretch towards the sky.
A little over fifteen years ago, I graduated from St. Paul's School in Concord, NH.  Unsure of myself, my place in that environment or the world in general, I mostly turned my back on it.  While I was sporadically in touch with a few classmates with whom I had been close, I did not rush to reunions and off-campus meetups; I chose a university as unlike SPS as possible and dragged my heels even then, believing that an SPS diploma meant I was supposed to make a name for myself within certain outside parameters that I had not set.  Glossy alumni publications would arrive, and I would glance through them at photos of beautiful, shiny people getting married surrounded by other graduates, at updates about recent social engagements among classmates, at stories about Paulies who were starting successful non-profits, businesses, careers in entertainment, etc.

When I received the invitation to my fifteenth reunion, I decided to go.  Living in coastal Maine with my husband and two children, laundry on the line, bread in the oven and salt in the air, I felt that I was as much of who I am as I was ever going to be, and I might as well admit it to the world.  I was nervous and not sure what to expect.

What a wonderful time!  The adolescent anxiety was ancient history, what muddy water roiled beneath the bridges passed over the rapids and away.  Cooke, if you are reading this, I cannot find your email about anniversary but I remember that it was perfect, fluffy pancakes of time and all that.  The shared history, and the heart of the community, was all that was present.  I am so glad that I chose to go.

Three months later, I found myself in the hospital with leukemia.  With my ancient cell phone and occasional use of a laptop, I was pretty isolated.  When some classmates insisted that I ask for something as a gift or they would select something at random, I realized that I really needed a smart phone.  The class of 1995 gave me a phone and a year of service as a get-well present.

Smart phones are great for Facebook, among other things.  Which brings me, in a most roundabout way, to my point.  St. Paul's is a place; it is a community in the traditional sense.  Facebook is a virtual community, but it is as popular as it is because we crave community and must adapt it to our mobility.  Travel and relocation generate the opportunity to immerse ourselves in new communities, to become part of new places, but we do not wish to leave behind the places that we have been.  We still wish to introduce our babies to our neighbors, to watch their children grow, to celebrate marriages, to comfort and heal sick friends and learn from older folks, but our neighborhood is the world.  We find a way to find that nourishment.

When we find ourselves unmoored by winter winds, we fetch up in the trees around us and continue to grow, leaning.  Grateful.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Time, and The Passage Thereof

The day that I had my first biopsy was really hot; John was raising a pergola and he had to rush back from Gorham, soaked in sweat, to meet me at the hospital.  It was late August; the trees were still lush and green, although soon the leaves would begin to reveal that they had lost their jobs and been dismissed.  My first three hospital rooms had views of a brick wall, and the windows could not be opened; I had no sense of the world outside until I stepped out into the fresh air for the first time in three weeks.  

My second two rooms had views of the same tree, a big beech behind the parking lot.  I watched the leaves turn yellow, then brown.  When we drove to the hospital at the end of November for my last round of chemo, the leaves had all fallen.  I marked my passage through this illness by the senescence of the trees; the season of my cancer.  
When I got out of the hospital the first time I weighed 91 lbs and I had shaved my head.  I have never been a particularly substantial girl, but 91 lbs. is a little light.  Now I am up to 103 and my hair is growing back.  But I stand in the shower and wonder what happened to my body. 

Chemotherapy causes a sort of menopause; in young people it is usually temporary but it is still a shock to have one's hormones suddenly stop. Combined with the sudden weaning of my son and having spent a lot of the fall limited to the bed and occasionally the hallway, my muscle tone and body fat have diminished.  I have scars from the PICC lines and the chest tube (that was from when the staff punctured my lung accidentally during my trip to the ICU), but the bruises from my low platelet counts have mostly faded at this point. 

2010 has been an amazing, wonderful year.  I had a baby on January 1, we sold our old farm and moved to exactly where we want to be, the business we started in 2009 started to gain some traction despite the depression, and I have had the incredible experience of self-discovery that is this cancer.  It has been an eventful year, and the passage of time shows in my face - I have aged, quite suddenly.  Looking in the mirror I don't always quite recognize myself; it's me but it is not the me I am used to seeing.

Finding the gift in this has been more challenging than in other aspects of this experience, but it is there.  There is nothing to cling to in my appearance; I have the opportunity to let go of my ideas of what I should see there.  Spending so much time with the actual workings of my body, its essential functions and demands, has changed it from an outward form to an inward one for me.  It is a vessel for functioning in this environment, looking exactly as it should, teetering occasionally on the edge of the abyss but coming back to balance.  It has borne two children, experienced pleasure and pain and the mundane.

Our bodies are not static, and time wears on them even as it enriches them.  We must nourish them; the true meaning of wholesome food sometimes seems almost lost in the mainstream of the culture in which I live, even as it is obsessed with stalling the effects of the clock.  Avoiding sickness and healing from it is not magic, mystery or modern medicine alone; what we put into our bodies is a defining factor in their function and resilience.  Identifying and sharing the power of food has become part of my mission in paying forward the gifts of my illness.

Time is not the enemy; it is in its passage that we grow.