Their big beautiful tree over the years always had a branch for the ornament I would bring back from Maui. Some of them had puka shells and others had sea glass. Some were in the shape of a palm tree and then there was the Santa holding a small, balsa wood surfboard. This tree was so highly decorated with Maui memorabilia mixed in with the religious angels and paper cut-outs made from the younger grandkids in the family. It was a tree filled with Christmas spirit. It’s was a tree brimming with love.
This year it’s a tree snuggled inside a warm home, cared for by a family facing Christmas for the first time without a very important presence.
The tree I visited today was small. There were a few paper cut-out ornaments hanging from the branches and a UVA ornament; a statement piece signifying where most of the family lives and works these days. I carefully hung the little reindeer with the green lei around his neck sprinkled with little tiny shells deep into the pine needles. This little tree is on its own these cold winter days. It casts a thin shadow across the headstone of my friend Jay. Cancer robbed him of Christmas with his family. He’s been gone 9 months.
The experts tell us around the Holidays it’s OK to cry. Crying is a natural outlet of grief. Lean on your Faith. Whatever works for you, do it. Holding on to your spirituality is a comfort. Say “No” if you’re not up to celebrating or seeing friends and family. No one ever said you have to attend every event. Eat, sleep and pamper yourself. Take care to keep up your strength and well-being.
AND HONOR traditions because they are meaningful.
And that’s where this little ornament plays a big role. It’s a tradition. It belongs on the little tree now.
We’re “in the window.”
It’s the time of year for those of us who have lost loved ones to cancer, to feel the weight of the loss during the Holiday Season. There’s no denying it. Time, as ‘they’ say, helps a lot, but there’s something about the family traditions, the gatherings, the planning, and all the memories that hang from the tree or the mantle or the menorah; there’s no ignoring that someone is missing.
I still hang Leroy’s stocking at the fireplace. It is a work of heart, his grandmother made for him…It’s decorated with sequins and little green trees and white fluffy trim. It’s an original, just like the tiny boy it was made for and I love looking at it. Leroy loved rock and roll, but when it came to Christmas music, he was all about the traditional sound, so I play that music and think back to the celebrations we had together before cancer came into our lives.
I’m not trying to forget our Holiday time together. I cherish it. Every year there are new memories to add on to the old ones, but the old ones are still so important.
So if you find yourself “in the window,” open that window and let the good times flow….past and present.
I’ve think I’ve seen almost every emotion played out in the lobby of the Kimmel Cancer Center over the many years of walking through those doors. The lobby is a living, breathing playbook on cancer. Patients move through there identified by their bald heads, blue masks, oxygen tanks and chemo drips. Doctors in white coats have a cadence all their own; many times, the lobby is a passage way from the research labs to the recipients of all that research. It’s rarely anything but a full day in the out-patient center.
In the corner of the lobby the other day, I was standing in line waiting to get my parking ticket processed before heading down the elevator to my car. In front of me, clearly in a state of extreme sadness stood a young woman, her mom and her grandmother. They were a matched set of faces, just different generations. The little grandma stood and stared straight ahead, her eyes rubbed red from tears. The mom, in-charge and fumbling in her purse for the parking ticket, was trying so hard to hold it together. Her younger daughter just let the tears flow. Why is it when you just want to disappear from a lobby like this, processing a parking ticket seems to move in slow motion? The attendant did what he could but when machines are involved, emotions don’t matter.
My hand instinctively went to the daughter’s shoulder and I tried to console her. From her glance in my direction, I could tell she was surprised that anyone had noticed her crying. She was in her own space, a weeping wall separated her from anyone else in the room.
“It’s OK to cry” I said.
No words were exchanged that day between us. The mom simply nodded, the grandma just stared straight ahead but the young woman put her hand on mine and looked directly at me. So many tears lined up in those big brown eyes. Such sadness from a heart clearly hurting.
She couldn’t leave that lobby fast enough.
I can think of a half dozen homes altered by cancer this Thanksgiving.
Friends who are fighting cancer and don’t have the same energy they’ve had in past years to stand and prepare a huge Thanksgiving meal for family and friends. Instead, they’ll leave the cooking to others and if I know them like I think I do, they’ll raise a glass of ginger ale and look around the room wondering if they’ll be here next year to enjoy the room full of love and support. That’s what cancer in the room does to a Thanksgiving celebration.
I’m also thinking of a couple of homes where a chair at the table, will be just a chair; sitting empty this year because cancer stole another loved one from us. Glasses will be raised at this table too. Everyone will say how thankful they are for everyone who has gathered, but there will be so many broken hearts from the loss.
There will be 3 cancer widows at my table this year. THREE cancer widows. Add to that, three young adults who missed having a father in their homes for a good part of their ‘growing-up’ years. We will lift our glasses before dinner and say how much we miss these three wonderful guys. They were a force in our lives and they left a big hole in our hearts.
We were lucky; we had them even for a little while. That’s something to be thankful for, indeed.
Wishing you all a very Happy Thanksgiving.
I have two really good friends who are in the deepest, ugliest part of fighting breast cancer. They were diagnosed about a week a part.
Both women are smart and sharp and from their diagnosis, moved on to connect to oncologists and surgeons who are affiliated with comprehensive cancer centers and they are being treated aggressively.
They both have Taxol, an anti-cancer chemotherapy pumped into their veins now and each woman is handling that differently. I’m sure it has to do with the other drugs being used to make their individual chemo treatment as effective as possible. Because both found their cancers early, the prognosis is good, although the type of breast cancer is different for each friend.
If you think about it, it wasn’t that long ago that getting a diagnosis of breast cancer meant only one type of chemo, maybe some radiation added to the protocol, but even that wasn’t targeted and a lot of healthy tissue got caught in the crossfire of the radiation beams. So much has been learned and treatment has been specialized to fit specific types of cancers, even in the breast cancer family.
These ladies are lucky. They really are lucky. They have a better chance at a long, strong life now, post treatment.
It’s that way for many cancers now. Research and clinical trials have pushed forward the knowledge to better treat our family members and friends.
Two steps forward….
He was diagnosed at a small town hospital. His doctors had seen cancer before, but his was a complicated and difficult cancer. They said they could treat him but to their credit, they told him he’d be much better off if he went to a cancer center where his diagnosis would be looked at by a multi-disciplinary group of doctors. They would put their heads together and as a group decide what the best treatment would be.
Experience counts in cancer world. YOU want your doctor to say “I’ve seen this before and we should do this,” instead of hearing “I haven’t really seen this kind of cancer before.”
So he took the advice and his team of doctors have been aggressive. They have taken steps to attack his cancer with chemotherapy, surgery, recovery from surgery and now more chemo of a different kind to create what they hope will be a “knock-out punch.”
This man is feeling the effects of the chemo, but his cancer is N-E-D at the moment and that gives him HOPE. He’s a realist and knows this cancer could come back. But for now, he’s in a good place.
Like his wife says, they live well each day. “Each day counts so much more.”
You bet it does.
Today is mine. My birthday.
So many wonderful friends remembered and for that I am very grateful.
Birthdays are just different now. Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy to celebrate, but there’s a big hole in the circle that surrounds me on this day. I have so many great memories of celebrating with the Big Guy. We had our “Birthday weeks” and they were special. I think back on them now and I’m so glad we had those special times.
The 8 birthdays that have come around since he’s been gone are another marker of how much cancer changes lives.
These calendar days, as I call them, are a real test of our strength and perseverance to keep moving forward in life.
There was a point in this day where I took a couple of steps backward, allowing cancer to creep back into my world. But I pushed back and will celebrate tonight with another year under my belt.
There are new memories to make and they’ll fit nicely next to the old ones.
President Obama called her an “extraordinary journalist.” He said she “also inspired tomorrow’s journalists.”
He said he “admired her integrity, tenacity and intellect” and he called her a “trailblazer.’
He was 100% on target.
Gwen was all that and more. She died today at age 61. CANCER took her life, but not her spirit.
Gwen had a feisty spirit. She definitely was a glass half full kind of woman. She loved her job. She was so good at it too. But there was more to Gwen than that extraordinary journalist.
We had offices across a narrow hall at the NBC NEWS Washington Bureau so we shared a lot of talk and a lot of laughs and because my office mate was her producer, we also shared a lot of those last minute dashes to make air. She was a trooper. She worked so hard. Journalism meant something to Gwen. The word stood for something and she honored her profession.
When she was diagnosed we talked about how her new journey would change her life. She wanted to know what to expect. I don’t think any of us who knew what she was going through expected Gwen’s life would end in just a few months.
It’s a sad day for me. I’ve lost a friend and in some ways I feel like maybe I let her down. Should I have pushed her to more aggressive doctors? Did I check in with her enough along the way?
My only consolation is knowing Gwen is no longer in pain from her cancer.
She’s at peace. I know she’s at peace and for that I’m very grateful.
She’s a strong woman. She’s lived long enough to learn the ropes about life. Then she heard the words “You have cancer.”
She’s forgotten how strong she is, because those words have shaken her to the core.
Three words that can make even the bravest shudder at the thought that there’s something bad happening to their body.
Her doctor explained the treatment phase of this fight today. She listened and took notes, because she knew the words would float around the room but not much would be retained. The dates stuck out more than anything at this appointment. The day she’d go for “chemo education.” The day she’s scheduled to have a port put in so the chemotherapy infusion would be easier on her body. No needle sticks. The doctor explained the number of treatments over the course of many weeks and radiation would follow as a one-two punch against her cancer.
So now she’s in the cancer loop. She has to start to think about nutrition and hydration and continuing her exercise routine. She’s a smart woman and knows these are all important pieces, but what worries her is how she’ll feel. Will this kill the cancer?
Will this change her? How will this change her?
She’s strong enough and brave enough to say those words.
It is a scary time.
When I was a care giver, I needed support and she was there for me.
She’d call me just to check in and say “Hi.” It didn’t have to be a long conversation. I think she could take “my temperature” by the tone in my voice. A hard day and I was tired and my voice reflected my concern and worry and she would stay on the call a little longer, trying to pick up my spirits.
We would walk for miles over the years Leroy battled his cancer. The fresh air, the road stretched out before me and my friend by my side was a cancer treatment not discovered in a lab somewhere, but it worked wonders for this care giver’s psyche.
Cancer has become a part of our walks once again. And this time, I’m the one calling to see how my friend is doing. She’s heard the words “You have cancer.”
It was discovered very early and her prognosis is very good.
It’s still cancer. Cancer requires support from friends.
My walking shoes are laced up and ready to go.