Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Guest Writer: Laura Orem

 I am very pleased to introduce you to an amazing writer and amazing woman: Laura Orem. Here is her first guest post for "Love in the TIme of Cancer.":

When you receive a cancer diagnosis, it swallows you up in a way that other diseases do not. First, of course, there is panic – am I going to die? But after the first shock, when death seems less imminent in the face of treatment, the question morphs into something else – who am I now?

In May 2010, I was diagnosed with stage 1C ovarian cancer. I had a radical 6-hour surgery to remove my ovaries, uterus, and various other abdominal accoutrements, then another surgery to insert a catheter port in my chest, then four months of intensive chemotherapy. I was physically weakened from the surgeries and wiped out, as almost everyone is, by the chemo drugs.  My mouth turned into a burning cesspit of sores and pain. I lost my hair. I lost my stamina. I lost the subconscious safety net we are born with: the confidence that, while other people must die someday, an exception will be made in our case.

On top of everything else, the cancer surgery threw me into menopause. So, in addition to chemo, I had to deal with violent hot flashes and night sweats. It was miserable. But I came out alive on the other end, with an excellent prognosis. Perhaps, the thought has occurred to me more than once, I should stop complaining and just be thankful to be alive.

Believe me, I am grateful. I had wonderful doctors and nurses; my family and friends – well, what I feel towards them would seem trivialized by any attempt at description. But I am not the same woman I was before cancer. In some ways, this is a good thing. I’m not afraid of much anymore: spiders, other people’s BS, speaking my mind. In fact, these days I’m virtually unintimidatable. In other ways, it’s not so good: I’m physically weaker; I weigh a lot more; and I feel defeminized in a profound way. To put it bluntly, I’ve lost almost all my girl-parts. I used to luxuriate in my own body; now sometimes I drag it around with me like a beaten-up Airstream.

I feel mended, not healed. Deeply grateful for surviving, but deeply changed.

Our culture, having been fed a diet of positive-thinking propaganda from Lifetime movies and organizations like the Susan G. Komen Foundation, wants cancer survivors to be endlessly upbeat and optimistic, to come out the other side more able to stop and smell the roses, to almost be thankful for their disease experience. But I think this does many survivors a great disservice by dismissing their own narratives in favor of a fairy-tale ending.

What happens when you don’t feel positive and optimistic? What if you’re so angry you’d rather decapitate the roses with a pair of scissors than smell them? Cancer isn’t a romantic movie. It’s terrifying and it’s horrible. It grabs you by the ankles and slams you against a rock until you cry out for mercy. I’m wiser, yes, and my cancer has been cured, thank God, but I’ve also lost a lot.

So, after the treatment was over and the clean bill of health issued, when I was standing there with the pieces of the-rest-of-my-life in my hands wondering what shape they made, what did I do? I did what I always do – I wrote about it. Castrata: a Conversation is an heroic crown of sonnets that is presented as a dialogue between the speaker (me) and Carlo Faranelli, the great Italian castrato singer. We have a lot in common, Signor Faranelli and I. Why sonnets? Because for me something as messy as cancer needs a structure to render it manageable as a subject, to move it beyond a primal cry and into, hopefully, art.

Make no mistake, I’m glad to be alive. I have many, many good things in my life: my family, my friends, my animals, my work. I’m basically a happy person. I’m going to live, and I’ve got a lot to live for. But, as one of the sonnets says, “I will name my losses, too.”  To deny this would be unforgiveable dishonesty.  I owe my readers – and myself – nothing less than the truth.

Laura Orem

 Castrata: a Conversation is available for pre-order from Finishing Line Press. Price $12 plus $2.99 shipping. Shipping date Nov. 1.

Click here to reserve your copy: 

Friday, July 25, 2014

The Well of Grief

Those who will not slip beneath

     the still surface on the well of grief
turning downward through its black water
     to the place we cannot breathe
will never know the source from which we drink,
     the secret water, cold and clear,
nor find in the darkness glimmering
     the small round coins
          thrown by those who wished for something else.

  -- David Whyte
      from Where Many Rivers Meet 
      ©2007 Many Rivers Press

Monday, July 21, 2014

Corporate Cancer

I just re-read an article from the New York Times business section which features Trish May, founder and CEO of Athena Partners. She’s 56 and has used her experience with cancer to find her mission, passion and even profit.

May had breast cancer at age 39 in the midst of her big career at Microsoft. She is the creator of Microsoft PowerPoint. I know. There’s a mixed blessing; we can love her or hate her for that gift of PowerPoint to the world.

But her next gift was taking her cancer experience and applying her business skills to create a line of products—Athena Partners—including bottled water, and chocolates and giving 100 percent of her profits to cancer research.

I was moved by her story and impressed by her actions. I had to ask myself why I liked her while many cancer survivor, “Cancer changed my life” stories turn me off. I think it’s this: there is nothing whiny about this woman. She is a survivor –cancer did change her life—but she is no victim. 

She is committed to the cancer cause because of personal experience and her attitude is facing forward, “Let’s do something” rather than backward, “Look what happened to me.”

Can I make this shift in my thinking? What would that look like? And for you too?

Monday, July 14, 2014

Erotic Intelligence and Esther Perel

I became an immediate fan of Esther Perel when I saw her TED Talk on intimacy and eroticism. She is just so wise—and studied—about what keeps a relationship sexy. She is a family therapist and she serves on the faculty of the International Trauma Studies Association at Columbia so her research and thinking go much deeper than sex. But then, is anything deeper than sex?

I’ve been re-reading her book, “Mating in Captivity” (Harper Collins, 2006) and this is definitely one for the bedside table, and one for every book group—women or mixed.

What is crucial to understand is that Perel is not giving sex tips. This is not content for Cosmopolitan readers (though I am a huge fan of uber-feminist Helen Gurley Brown). No, Perel is talking about our attitudes toward our lives and our deeper selves, and how we think about our mates and our relationships—that is the core of true sensuality, sexuality and eroticism.

In a chapter on monogamy she writes about a couple --Philip and Jackie--who are in the blahs. She leads the chapter with a discussion of the law of diminishing returns and how that tells us that increased frequency leads to decreased satisfaction. The car, house, handbag or job are always worth more to us before we have them and over time…well, the blahs.

As she moves on to address this as it applies to love Perel says, “The logic of this argument breaks down when it is applied to love, for it is based on the erroneous assumption that we can own a person in the same way that we can own an iPod or a new pair of Prada heels. When Jackie said, “Perhaps I only want what I can’t have, I responded, “What makes you think you can have your husband?”

And she continues with this crucial statement:

“The grand illusion of committed love is that we think our partners are ours. In truth, their separateness is unassailable, and their mystery is forever ungraspable. As soon as we begin to acknowledge this, sustained desire becomes a real possibility.”

That is a gem worth pasting inside the cupboard where you reach for your coffee mug each morning.

If you’d like more of Esther Perel here is the link to her TED Talk:

Sunday, July 13, 2014

A Poem for Keeping Marriage Real

Listening to the Koln Concert

" After we had loved each other intently,
we heard notes tumble together,
in late winter, and we heard ice
falling from the ends of twigs.

The notes abandon so much as they move.
They are the food not eaten, the comfort
not taken, the lies not spoken.
The music is my attention to you.

And when the music came again,
late in the day, I saw tears in your eyes.
I saw you turn your face away
So that others would not see.

When men and women come together,
how much they have to abandon. Wrens
make their nests of fancy threads
and string ends, animals

abandon all their money each year.
What is it that men and women leave?
Harder than wren's doing, they have
to abandon their longing for the perfect.

The inner nest not made by instinct
will never be quite round,
and each has to enter the nest

made by the other imperfect bird. "

---Robert Bly

Friday, July 11, 2014

The Risks of Addiction for Caregivers

I’m preparing for a presentation at the National Substance Abuse Conference coming up in September and as I review my research on aging and addiction I thought that some of this information might be helpful to families in Cancer Land.

Caregiving is central to cancer care and also to the rapidly growing Boomer Bump. So as you consider your role --or the experience of family members who are your caregivers--you may want to think about some of this research about addiction and caregiving.

This information is also relevant if you will be involved in the care of someone who is aging. And that, of course, is all of us.

Senior addiction and caregiver relapse is a new pandemic. Caregivers of people with chronic illness can quite easily become addicted or suffer a relapse if they have earlier struggled with an addiction.

Caregivers have several key ingredients in the recipe for addiction: They are home, feel trapped, they may feel a lot of unspoken resentment (this is not the retirement they anticipated, or “I did not sign up for this.”)

Also caregivers are often shamed by being “sainted” (“Oh you are such a saint.”) so they can’t express the anger or resentment they feel when caring for a sick spouse. And they may have easy access to drugs and alcohol.

The most prescribed medications for seniors are the Benzodiazepines: Valium, Zanex, Ambien etc. (These drugs mimic the symptoms of dementia so an addiction can be missed in the patient and in the caregiver.)

Family and friends often ignore symptoms or will cut caregivers a break: “His wife has Alzheimer’s he deserves his drinks at night.” “She has to do all that physical care of her husband—yeah she needs to get her sleep.” And they may not be driving so they don’t face the natural interventions like car accidents or DWI.

 Furthermore adult children are not around and so they only see them on occasion. And an intervention may be avoided because it would mean that the adult children have to take over caregiving. This contributes to the likelihood of ignoring addiction or just saying, “Hey Mom try to drink a little less, Ok?”

There are certain key risk periods for older adult addiction onset or relapse:
Men or women at retirement.
Women when children move away.
When a spouse dies.
When a spouse has chronic dementia.

Consider this information as you talk as a family, when you suspect dementia, if you notice medication errors and when there is a family history of addiction of any kind.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Bull Durham--Why Women Love This Movie

Baseball season and in addition to games we get to watch the best baseball movies. The past couple of nights I have been watching Bull Durham. This is the movie from 1988 with Kevin Costner playing an aging catcher in the minor leagues. This is a movie that appears to be about baseball life with its travails and hopes and the desperate desires of men who want to play ball for a living. It is seemingly a men’s movie with all the swearing and ass slapping and drinking and real life baseball lore. But no, this really is THE all time best chick flick.

Yes, we love Kevin Costner from the first moment he arrives in the locker room wearing his navy blazer, rumpled white shirt and the khakis that are the perfect shade of tan with a hint of olive. He’s a manly man who in the first 20 minutes gives the fabulous, if too artful, monologue about his beliefs which includes, “I believe in the cock, the pussy, the small of a woman’s back…that the novels of Susan Sontag are self-indulgent, overrated crap”, and which ends with his belief in “long, slow, deep, soft, wet kisses that last three days”.

Yes! You had us at “long, slow and deep”—and yes, at the Susan Sontag critique too.

But there is a later scene that truly outs women for what they really want.
“Do you want to dance?” Sarandon asks Costner, sitting in the kitchen late at night. He says yes, but surprises her by not dancing but instead by sweeping all the food and dishes off the kitchen table onto the floor. He spins Sarandon onto that now empty table and they go at it rolling and clutching.

Oh, that’s part of it. We want a man to want us that much; we want a man who wants to make love a second time so much that he goes for it on the kitchen table. We do want that kind of passion in our lives. But, there is something else in this scene that truly makes this a women’s dream come true.  What most women truly desire is not what Costner does, but what Sarandon does NOT do. As all of her dishes and the leftover food crash onto the floor Sarandon allows herself to be swept onto that table instead of diving for a broom, or a dish cloth or saying to her lover, “Hold on just a second, I’ll clean this up and then meet you in the bedroom.”

No, she is in the moment and desires this man and this sex more than she desires a clean floor or neat kitchen. She wants the rapture of this man and his body even with cereal and milk oozing under the fridge. And she is not saying, “Oh God that was my mother’s china bowl.” Nope, she’s on that table fucking her brains out.

Oh, to be that kind of woman. We assume the power is in the man, that to be taken that way would free us. But what we see in Bull Durham is a woman who CAN be taken. She is not a woman thinking, “When did we last wash these sheets?” while a man is dutifully going down on her.

Oh, we do wish for a partner to love us with such sweet abandon, but Sarandon, in Bull Durham, shows us a woman who can abandon herself.

Friday, July 4, 2014


Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.
Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing. 
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
it is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.

---Naomi Shahib Nye