Monday, August 5, 2013

Weekend of the wasp


Yeah, I know. Wasps aren't completely useless. Apparently wasps do pollinate flowers, kill bugs that would otherwise eat crops, blah-dee-blah-blah. Doesn't mean I have to like them. This long weekend, I certainly don't like wasps.

First, my friend Melissa was stung by a wasp as we ran around the Seawall. There was no flailing of limbs in an attempt to escape the wasp. In fact, we never saw it. "Ouch! I just got stung!" she yelled. We looked around. No stinger so it wasn't a bee, and no culprit to be seen.

I asked if she was allergic. "I don't know," Melissa replied. She'd only been stung once before and did have a reaction, but not enough for her to be officially be declared allergic.

We eventually stopped at the Rowing Club where a member kindly let us use the change room so I could see how swollen her sting was. The member also looked and said it didn't look too bad. We ended up completing the run and things seemed alright Melissa and I parted ways. (Fingers crossed she doesn't read this from a hospital bed.)

Today, a mere two days later, I was on my way to get groceries. "Ouch!" I yelled as I kicked my flipflop a few few feet down the sidewalk. Two women who were dressed up and walking with plastic cups of wine stopped. "Are you okay?" I checked the bottom of my foot. Again, no stinger and no culprit. Damn you, wasps!

My fear of things that sting

When I was a kid, I spent weeks of each summer visiting my grandparents' farm. My mom and aunt once told us kids about the wonderful stings they got growing up. My mom regaled us with the tale of being stung multiple times in the ear by a hornet. Meanwhile, my aunt shared that she was once stung on the eyelid by a bumblebee and her eye swelled shut.

Then the adults wondered why I was scared to go outside. In addition to the hornets and bumblebees who apparently skulked around waiting for young girls to sting, there were beehives on the property. Beehives!

Now that I'm an adult, I get how necessary bees are. And they generally leave me alone. But wasps, hornets and yellow jackets? They're jerks. They know they can sting multiple times and seem to revel in doing so.

So yes, they have a purpose. Like chemotherapy and other things I find unpleasant. But I don't have to like them.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Top concerts: Alabama Shakes

Last week, I experienced what I anticipate will be one of the best concerts of my lifetime: Alabama Shakes at the Orpheum in Vancouver.

Alabama Shakes and I have a relationship of sorts. About one year ago, when I was feeling at my worst during chemo - exhausted physically, emotionally, spiritually - George told me to listen to a band he'd just heard on YouTube. It was Alabama Shakes' "Hold On". I was mesmerized.

Not only is Brittany Howard's voice, often described as a mash-up between Janis Joplin and Aretha Franklin, phenomenally powerful, but the lyrics were exactly what I needed to hear at that point in my life. And today, there are still moments when I need someone to tell me to hold on.

I watched two more videos and googled Alabama Shakes. And I bought their CD, Boys and Girls.

Thank you lady luck

Then just this past spring I saw something online about Alabama Shakes moving their show to the Orpheum. "Say what?!" I thought. I had somehow missed that they were even coming. But a change to a larger venue. This meant more tickets would be sold - hallelujah!

I expected big things. And Alabama Shakes delivered.

Hurray for the Riff Raff

They started off with an excellent opening act, Hurray for the Riff Raff. Definitely a country flavour. Singer Alynda lee Segarra's voice reminded me of different people at different times, Stevie Nicks with a dash of Margo Timmins (Cowboy Junkies), but mainly Yvette Narlock (solo artist formerly of Mollies Revenge, Yve Adam).

I bought their CD Look Out Mama after their set. I was pleasantly surprised when the singer announced she'd be at the merch table. In fact, the entire band was there and I got my CD signed. I spoke briefly with one of them about Alabama Shakes and how I first heard them when I was going through a challenging time in my life. "Yep, doctors should prescribe it. Music is the best medicine," he said.

Time for a dose

Indeed, Alabama Shakes proved to be a the kind of medicine that doesn't just make you feel passable, but uplifts you without a comedown and lasts, possibly for a lifetime.

At one point, Howard wondered out loud why she bothered doing her hair before shows. After rocking out considerably, her do was undone, but the audience didn't care. In fact, the fact that she rocked that hard made us love her that much more. If we wanted done up, we'd have shelled out for one of those lipsync "artists" wearing a headset mic.

Alabama Shakes made me do one thing I've never done at a show (and I've mocked others for doing). I cried. Not once, not twice, but three times. The first time, obviously, during "Hold On". The second because of Howard's lovely intro to "Boys and Girls" during which she talked about her best childhood friend and how eventually they were told they shouldn't be friends any more. It made me think of my son and some of his very good friends who happen to be girls.

The third set of tears, I have to admit I can't remember which song inspired it. What I do remember was it was a sweet release.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Be one with the waves

Ready to embark but a tad nervous. ©kittelberg writes

I hadn't paddled since the year before my breast cancer surgery. For someone who was a dragonboat paddler for several years and enjoyed kayaking at least once every summer, it made me sad.

With the kid in daycamp, I figured last week was the week to do it. It took minutes from the time I updated my Facebook status to, "Anyone want to go sea kayaking this week?" to find a kindred spirit in my friend Ceci.

Ecomarine has a 2-for-1 special on Tuesdays. Ceci had family visiting from Vernon. My range of motion isn't 100% in my left shoulder due to the axillary dissection, so I wanted to kayak tandem. Turned out Ceci's daughter, Alex, had to paddle with an adult so I got an enthusiastic partner (who's as tall as me and a strong paddler). And the planets aligned.

No reason to panic

We headed out into the wind so that the trip back to Jericho Beach would be easier. Ceci's sister and nephew were also in a tandem kayak, and Ceci went solo. I was happy to note that the effort felt equal in both shoulders.

I steered so that we would go into the waves, rather than risk having them tip us. I felt capable but cautious. We spotted whitecaps, so decided it was time to turn. Then Ceci's kayak tipped. She was fine, so we chilled out in the waves as she got back into her kayak.

I remembered how to relax as the waves rocked us from the side. It felt like the kayak was simply an appendage. On our way back to the beach, I played more with the steering to hit the sweet spots in the waves. "Look!" said Alex, and I tilted my head up to see an eagle fly above us. A true movie moment!

We got back to the shore, tired but happy. I plan to kayak again (and again) before the end of summer. The lure of the waves is powerful.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Beating the Blerch

Sharon, Melissa, me and Lynn at the Resolution Run.
©kittelberg writes

On Sunday, I did my first long run in two weeks. I had been away visiting family and friends in Ontario and while I managed to work in two runs per week (including one hill training session), the humidity and the fact that I was running solo made long runs unappealing.

So one day after my return, I hit the Seawall and one of the Stanley Park trails with Melissa to run 13k. Yes, 13k. After hovering near the 10k mark for months, it was time to up the ante.

In September, the Superstars are taking part in the inaugural Kelowna Wine Country Half Marathon.

The running resolution

Back on December 31, 2012, I went to a New Year's Eve party where there was a giant piece of paper? Bristol board? I can't remember exactly, but the point is, it was a space where guests could jot down their resolutions for 2013.

I decided putting it in writing made it that much more of a commitment. I wrote, "Run a half marathon". The next day, I made good on working towards that goal by starting the new year with the Resolution Run.

I've kept running since then. But I have to say that Sunday was the first time I saw a hill and nearly burst into tears. I think I said something along the lines of "I don't know if I can do this hill" to Melissa. She told me I could and suggested slowing down. Another reason I love running with friends!

Clearly, it didn't kill me as I'm writing this post. I did feel like vomiting at the end of the run, but it went away after cooling down.

Enter the Blerch

Some of the non-runners I know think I'm nuts for doing it. Heck, I thought runners were nuts when I wasn't a runner. And at the point that Sunday's hill nearly had me dissolve in tears? I had a serious WTF moment.

Today, my friend Gord shared a link to the Oatmeal's The terrible and wonderful reasons why I run long distances. It pretty much sums up my feelings. It puts a name to the little devil on my shoulder who tells me I can't: the Blerch.

On Sunday, I silenced the Blerch. I imagine I'll do so every Sunday for the rest of the summer, and possibly multiple times on the day of my first half marathon.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Book review: In the Body of the World

A couple of weeks ago, I was lucky to catch Eve Ensler's book reading at Capilano University.

I had read an interview with her in the Vancouver Sun the weekend before the event. Until then, I didn't know Ensler had been treated for uterine cancer. In the interview, she talked about her rage. And I was sold.

As Ensler shared anecdotes of her experience and read from The Body of the World, I felt that kinship I tend to feel when I meet another cancer warrior. All too often, I felt alone during my treatment, despite my friends' and family's efforts to assure me I was not.

Sharing her fear of stopping and being still, Ensler recalled telling someone, "I don't want to be a fucking patient." Amen, sister.

"I feel like this book came from my body," Ensler said. And it reads like it.

In fact, when I completed the book days after seeing her speak, I felt like it could have come from my body too. I told my husband, "It feels like she reached inside my brain and put my words on paper."

The one overwhelming feeling I had, particularly on the days the chemo was exhausting me, was failure. I was angry because my body had failed me. And I was worried if the chemo didn't work and the cancer metastasized, it would be the ultimate failure.

Ensler writes, "All the hundreds of cards and letters and emails I received said the same thing. 'We have no doubt you will make it. You are a force of nature. Nothing can stop you. You will beat this, Eve. You're a fighter.' I know people are trying to give me support and make me feel strong, but sometimes it makes me anxious. What if it just isn't true? What if I can't beat this or it has nothing to do with me? Will it mean I'm a failure and or a failed force of nature, like one of those New York City hurricanes that never shows up after you've put huge taped Xs on your windows? What if it isn't about fighting?"

I wept as I read this particular passage not out of grief but out of relief that someone else got it, that I wasn't alone.

The Body of the World is raw, gut-wrenching, hilarious, and inspirational. If you are a woman, regardless of whether or not you're a cancer warrior, give it a read. I'm pretty sure you won't feel alone either when you are done.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Caring for my wife through cancer

I'm honoured to run today's guest post by Cameron Von St. James, who took care of his wife, Heather, during her treatment for mesothelioma and their infant daughter. Thank you to all the caregivers out there. - Lori

Cameron Von St. James

November 21, 2005 is a day that will be burned in my memory forever. That is the day that my wife Heather received her malignant pleural mesothelioma cancer diagnosis. Immediately, my work as a caregiver started.

It is an understatement to say that I was unprepared for the task. Only three months earlier, Heather and I celebrated the birth of our only child, Lily. Just like any other family, we were planning holiday celebrations and excitedly preparing for Lily’s first Christmas. However, our holiday plans would quickly change, as we began down a long and difficult road to beat cancer.

My journey to becoming a caregiver

My duties as a caregiver began before we even left the doctor’s office where we received the diagnosis.

Heather’s doctor described her cancer in detail. He said we needed a specialist. We had three options. One was the local university hospital. Another was a great regional hospital, but they did not have a mesothelioma program. The third option would be to go all the way to Boston to see Dr. David Sugarbaker, a specialist in mesothelioma.

Looking at Heather, I could see she was in shock and unable to make a decision. Her eyes pleaded with me for help. I made the snap decision to go to Boston. I asked our doctor to help us make the arrangements. This decision was only the first of many I would have to help make as Heather’s caregiver.

Juggling work, caregiving, and baby

In the next two months, we experienced complete chaos as our daily routines totally changed. Heather and I worked full-time jobs before she was diagnosed with cancer. After the diagnosis, she was too sick to work, and I could only work part time in order to care for her.

When I was not at work, I went with my wife to her doctor’s appointments, made travel arrangements for Boston, and took care of our baby, Lily.

It did not take long for me to feel overwhelmed with everything I had to do. I feared losing Heather, ending up broke and homeless with a baby girl. When these fears overwhelmed me, I would end up on the kitchen floor sobbing. I wanted all of this to disappear. Fortunately, I did not let Heather see me like this. I knew I had to be strong for her.

Letting people help

Our friends, family and even complete strangers helped Heather and me. We received everything from words of comfort to financial assistance. We will never be able to adequately thank everyone who helped.

If any of you or your family is diagnosed with cancer and someone offers to help, let them help. It lets you know that you are not alone. People care about you. They can help ease your burden.

Your emotions

Caring for someone with cancer is challenging. You will feel stress, fear and anger. Being a caregiver will probably be the most difficult challenge you will ever face. You cannot simply walk away from this responsibility like you could from a job or attending college.

Do not allow negative emotions take over. It is all right to have bad days. However, it is important to never give up hope.

Life after treatment

After mesothelioma surgery, chemotherapy and radiation, Heather beat the cancer. Seven years after her diagnosis, she is cancer free. It took years for our lives to resume as normal. However, I learned how to use my determination to my advantage. I had learned that time is precious.

Two years after Heather’s diagnosis, while I was working full time and caring for Heather and Lily, I decided to attend college and study information technology. My time as a caregiver gave me the skills and the courage I needed to pursue this dream.

I graduated with high honors and even spoke at my graduation. At graduation, I spoke about how I never thought I would be on a stage giving a graduation speech just a few years earlier, sitting in a doctor’s office hearing that my wife had cancer.

I encouraged the graduating class and those attending to never give up on their dreams. Each of us can achieve more than we ever thought possible. All we have to do is believe in ourselves.

Thank you, Cameron, for sharing your story. See a video of Heather's story on the Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance website.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Kancer kronicles: What a difference one year makes

My new do. ©kittelberg writes

One year ago, I started the #kancerkronicles. I had just had my drain removed, a major milestone in my mind.

My body

At this point last year, I was only walking a few blocks here and there. Tomorrow, I'm taking part in six fitness classes at the Bust a Move fundraiser for the BC Cancer Foundation. You can still donate, by the way!

I run two to three days a week, and have signed up for my first half marathon in September.

My hair

I had just had my hair cut short, in anticipation it would soon be falling out or shaved (I opted for the big shave to make it less traumatic when it did fall out). I'd wanted short hair forever, but kept putting it off until I lost weight. Yesterday, I had a bunch of my new chemo curls shaved off because I wanted to.

My kid

When this all started, I was fearful of talking to my son about cancer, which in part lead to some serious behaviour issues. I couldn't see it ending. I wondered if cancer was going to send him down an irreversible path that would lead to a lifetime of unhappiness.

Today, he has several friends I anticipate he will have for the rest of his life. He reads, does math, and can navigate the monkey bars hand over hand from one end to the other. He is compassionate and thoughtful. Sure, he still has his moments but he's six after all, and let's face it, he comes by his stubbornness, ahem, honestly.

My life

I still have fears: around cancer, parenting, money, work to name a few. But I'm working hard to do things despite my fear, and stop compromising. I am me, and I need to do the things that honour this.

To you, my haircut is simply that, a haircut. To me, it's symbolic that I'm going to be who I am and who I want to be, and not hide behind excuses any more. I'm sure I'll stumble here and there. But I was given another chance at this life for a reason. I'm going to try to do it right.