Tuesday, August 30, 2005
It Will Take More Than Two Hands

Anything personal that I could even begin to write about here seems inconsequential to what is happening in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. I keep thinking that if I lived in Louisiana or surrounding area and was going through chemo, what would happen to me? Would throwing me off schedule threaten my prognosis? Beyond cancer, what is going to happen to people who couldn't afford to refill their prescriptions early and may be left without medications or other medical aid? And for how long? I can't even begin to fathom the mental health needs. There are so many issues that people need addressed daily for survival and now they are just trying to keep their heads above water. Literally.

If you have it in your heart to help these people out, this might be a place to start:

If you want to help with emergency needs like shelter, food, water, and critical assistance, please donate to The Red Cross. They have already dispatched hundreds of volunteers to parts of Louisiana and neighboring devastated areas.

If you want to support a long-term effort of providing temporary and permanent housing, direct assistance beyond food and water to get people back into their homes, job placement counseling, and medical and prescription drug assistance, then please donate to Catholic Charities.

Or if these charities aren't to your liking, CNN and FEMA have this list of charities that accept cash donations and volunteers.

A few prayers and good thoughts might also be useful. Those are free so please donate liberally.
Written by Jeannette Vagnozzi
5 chimed in

Thursday, August 25, 2005
From Gilligan to Grace?
I have been in a very pensive mood these days. My mind seems to wander from the mundane to the philosophical at whim, without connection or direction of thought. Only the bizarre miswired synapses of my mind can create such wandering thoughts that can travel from Gilligan to grace in one post. It's quite a leap at times to follow my train of trought, but at least the tickets are free. I can't seem to tell one story without telling three and this is proof. It all started when . . .

Recently I was in my office and I kept hearing this tapping sound that seemed somehow related to my phone. It would stop and start at metered intervals, tapping the same pattern repeatedly. Could it be a message? It wasn't loud, but I couldn't help but wonder if it was a Morse Code "S.O.S." being sent from someone trapped in the electrical room. Noting that the electrical room was clear, my mind was more at ease. After the sound stopped, I began to wonder if perhaps I read too much Nancy Drew or watched too much Gilligan's Island in my youth. It is scary how much I have been influenced by television. Morse Code? Who knows Morse Code these days unless you are on a submarine. . . . - - - . . . short-short-short-long-long-long-short-short-short . . . - - - . . . (I so could have helped the professor get them off the island)

Last Sunday I was in church with my family. There aren't words that can properly describe the way it feels to belt out a hymn some days. I often get lost in thought at church, but this day I remember noticing the absence of certain practices drilled into me in my youth by well-meaning and loving yet strict nuns. I know the Catholic Church has evolved over the years and practices have evolved too, but I always feel strange when I am the only one bowing my head when I say the name of Jesus (I even bowed my head when I typed it!). I was taught at the tender age of six that it was a show of respect to bow my head when I say the name of Jesus (again!). I remember all of us Catholic school kids in our neatly pressed uniforms lined up in church, beanie caps in place, performing the well-timed head nod in unison. Even though I don't notice other heads still nodding, it has become a natural reflex, like shielding your mouth when you sneeze or scratching when it itches. Does that make it less respectful? Many of my responses at church are reflexive; however, if I didn't believe it, I wouldn't say it or do it. It is not surprising the impact that my Catholic faith has had on my life.

Last evening as I drove home from work, I saw the fire trucks blaze past with sirens wailing. I quickly made the sign of the cross and began to say the same thing I have said every time upon seeing an emergency vehicle, "There but for the grace of God go I. Please protect them." Since I began working with firefighters and police officers fourteen years ago, this has taken on even more significance to me, but as the words began to go through my mind, I stopped. There but for the grace of God go I. What does that mean? It seemed very arrogant and self-righteous.

When I came home I did a little research. According to Robert Hendrickson in the Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins, "On seeing several criminals being led to the scaffold in the 16th century, English Protestant martyr John Bradford remarked, 'There but for the grace of God, goes John Bradford.' His words, without his name, are still very common ones today for expressing one's blessings compared to the fate of another. Bradford was later burned at the stake as a heretic." Gee, where was his grace that time?

Prior to cancer I never would have thought twice about this, but once again, it is no surprise the impact that having cancer has had on my life. Why is it that I have God's grace and the poor person on the other end of that emergency call does not? Is that what I am implying? I know the intention of my sixth grade teacher was to point out my blessings, but why is it that after all these years and the exponential number of emergency vehicles I've seen that I stop at this moment to question this practice and these words? How is it that words of gratitude have become words of arrogance in my mind? Perhaps when you have been the person that others say that about, it changes your perspective.

I know that cancer has changed my perspective on many aspects of life. I know that when I see a person nearing the end of a valiant battle with this evil and destructive force, it is not the grace of God that resides with me and not with them. One is not more precious than the other in the eyes of God. Grace cannot be a presence/absence commodity. Perhaps the change in me is that I don't need a reminder to remember my blessings each day. Perhaps simply saying, "Please protect them" is all I need pray.

It seems that so much of my feelings were suspended during treatment, followed by a rush of emotion after treatment. I think perhaps the inquisitive, pensive mood is me redefining my life and my beliefs and settling into my life as a person who has faced cancer. There is no denying that it has influenced me, but then so again, so has faith, and family, and friends, and God help me, even television.
Written by Jeannette Vagnozzi
3 chimed in

Wednesday, August 24, 2005
Prevent. Detect. Share.
What is Blog for Hope?

Yahoo! Health and the American Cancer Society have joined forces in a 30-day Blog for Hope event. Here is how they describe it:

Blog for Hope is the nation's first celebrity blogging initiative to dramatically raise awareness of cancer prevention and early detection. Celebrities and public figures from every walk of life share triumphs, insights, and personal stories of how cancer has affected their personal lives.

There is no script when it comes to cancer. You may be surprised to learn that some of your favorite celebrities have survived cancer, while others have been profoundly touched by it. With Blog for Hope, you can read celebrity blogs where new entries are added throughout the 30-day event. You also can express your thoughts, exchange information, develop communities, and share inspiration and support with cancer patients, survivors, and others affected by cancer.

Produced in cooperation with the American Cancer Society and Yahoo! Health, Blog for Hope focuses on cancer prevention and early detection by stressing the importance of changing bad habits to reduce risk, knowing treatment options, and adopting healthy lifestyles.

Bloggers include Fran Drescher, Hillary Clinton, Deepak Chopra, Tom Green, Peggy Flemming and many others. Stop by and give them a visit. You'll find everything from statistics to personal stories, hopeful posts to humorous posts. A veritable potpourri of cancer blogging. Enjoy.
Written by Jeannette Vagnozzi
0 chimed in

Monday, August 22, 2005
Pieces of the Puzzle (or The Boobie Update)
This last year or so seems to have flown by and yet other times it seems like an eternity has passed. This time last year I was recovering from my second round of chemo, adapting to my hair loss, and consulting with surgeons regarding the bilateral mastectomy and reconstruction. When I look back on that time, it is almost as if I am viewing it from a corner of a room watching it happen to someone else. It is a very surreal feeling.

It is a good feeling to watch the plan I put into place last year finally start to play out as anticipated. And I didn't have to threaten, require him to surender his passport, or anything. We talked at leangth about the things I am okay with and the things I don't like about the current tissue expanders, where they are positioned, the shape, and overall look. I realize that reconstructed breasts are an alternative to no breasts whereas augmented breasts are an alternative to smaller breasts. There is a big difference in the approach and end result. It's like I told him the first day: I have no expectation of being in a magazine when he is done; I just want to feel normal in my clothing and, ultimately, in my own skin. When we were finished, he told me to, "Get dressed and go down the hall to your right and Amy can get you a date." Well, heck, if I knew it was that easy I would have stopped there every time I had an appointment! And here I thought you had to meet someone, be charming, and flirting was required. Talk about a hospital that takes care of ALL your needs. Who knew?

But seriously, by this time next month I shall have my permanent boobies. He'll pop these awful things out, insert new soft saline squishy ones, and sculpt the area by removing unecessary skin and tissue. For the most part, this surgery will be an easy recovery compared to the the last one. And when I am done I will have permament boobies and be one more step closer to putting this part of the journey behind me and moving on. Can I get an "Amen" my sistas?
Written by Jeannette Vagnozzi
9 chimed in

Of Forest Nymphs and Plastic Surgeons
As dawn broke over the land, the trumpets sounded, and the forest nymphs danced gleefully as all the animals gathered to watch. For today is a special day. The wait is over. All the earth joins in celebration.

Today is the day I see my plastic surgeon to schedule part two of my reconstruction.*

You will have to pardon the drama. You see, I am very lucky to have a such a wonderful surgeon that spends lots of time abroad lecturing, working, doing missionary work, racking up frequent flyer miles, etc. He is a fabulous man. I have the utmost respect for him.

But if he does not schedule this long awaited final surgery, I will force him to surrender his passport until it is on the schedule. End of story. No excuses.

*Boobie update to follow.
Written by Jeannette Vagnozzi
4 chimed in

Wednesday, August 17, 2005
And so it Came to Pass . . .
It was a valiant effort. Everyone, even the experts, thought they had already lost and it was too late. Somehow they were not ready for defeat. When all indications were that it was over for them, they quietly gathered up force and all at once raged back with a vengeance. It was not easy and it felt even more unbelievable. Could it be? Could they survive after all they had been through?

For three months it seemed they had won the battle. In whatever scrappy form they could muster up, they gave it their all. Oh, they struggled to survive with every last bit of energy they contained. Then all of a sudden with the same quickness with which they returned, the demise began. I will miss them and the promise they once held.

Farewell, my hormones. Thank you for trying. I was hoping this wasn’t menopause, but there is no denying it. I have just one question. Why did you have to leave me with these darn hot flashes?

Yes, every night I wake to a heat that could melt the polar ice caps. I jump from my bed to check the thermostat and the air conditioning is still set at 70 degrees (that’s 21C for my foreign friends). Yes, that was supposed to be the “cool down” setting for just a bit before setting it something more affordable and environmentally responsible. I think perhaps I had ten hot flashes at the office today.

I cannot wait until next month when I run into people and they ask what did you do this summer? With a joyful glee, a glazed look in my eye (from no sleep), and a voice from The Exorcist, I can tell them, “I spent my summer in MENOPAUSE,” as the tiny drops of perspiration roll down my chest.
Written by Jeannette Vagnozzi
5 chimed in

Sunday, August 14, 2005
One More Step Toward Normalcy (if you can call it that)

There was time in my life when hair couldn't be too big and no amount of hair product was too much. Adapting to this new hair has challenged those beliefs. Never having had short hair, I've struggled with the style of the post-chemo coif. I've gotten a gazillion compliments on the short do, but I was struggling with blow drying (it would get so huge!) and then taming it down with some gel and just trying to make it all work and be fun yet professional. It was getting tothe point where I was really starting to wonder if I was the lost Gotti girl (except not so rude or disrespectful and without that enunciation problem). And then something terrible happened.

I was having a discussion with a few students on Thursday evening. It was a casual conversation. They all know why I was out last Fall term and it seemed natural that one would comment on my hair. She first told me it looked cute. She then paused and said, "It's very eighties."

Eighties? The era of big hair bands, neon clothing, and bad accessories? I may tend to have a more classic style, but I like to think of it as refined classic and not classic eighties (at least not now -- in the eighties I was all about the neon, the big hair, and those cute black lace gloves with the fingers cut off just like Madonna's). Did the student think this could possibly earn her points? How could it possibly be taken as a compliment?

I decided it was time to seek professional help . . . for my hair.

For the first time in over a year I went to the salon and had a hair cut. And really, it was nearly just a hair that was cut. She shaped it a bit and chipped it to make it easier to style. She gave me styling tips and product advice. And although I was tempted, I refrained from any color (this time). I'm still enjoying the dark brown color and soft curls courtesy of the chemo even if I do miss the ever changing colors of my "mood hair" of the past. It felt good to be normal and doing one more thing that was part of my normal life before cancer.

Well, you might be able to take the eighties out of the hair, but you sure can't take the eighties out of the girl. My double header of The Breakfast Club and Sixteen Candles await (once I turn off my Flock of Seagulls cassette, that is). . .
Written by Jeannette Vagnozzi
6 chimed in

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Melissa Etheridge has announced that she has fully recovered from breast cancer. I am so happy for you, Melissa, and for all those who love you.

I have just one question for you, Melissa. One day when you Google your name (like every other Internet user has done) and come across this question, I hope you can respond because I would love to know the answer.

Fully recovered . . . What the hell does that mean?

P.S. Why is Google a verb and why do I use it?
Written by Jeannette Vagnozzi
9 chimed in

Monday, August 08, 2005
Trust is Earned
Whether it was the tragedy of September 11th, the first air strikes of war, or a World Series victory, Peter Jennings was the man whose dulcet tones soothed me and reassured me, letting me know everything would be alright. He had the ability to break the bad news calmly and share the good news with a joyous lilt in his voice.

He spoke humbly when he announced four months ago that he had a lot to learn from the 10,000,000 Americans living with cancer. When it was reported that he would be having chemotherapy, all of the medical correspondents predicted the worst. Ever since he announced his lung cancer diagnosis, I have waited patiently to hear his voice announce his remission. I selfishly needed the reassurance that he would triumph. I needed to know that if he could survive his diagnosis, then anything was possible for the many people I know facing cancer. And anything was possible for my own longevity. Selfish. Completely. But then again, that is what Peter did best. He brought the world into our homes and, in that safety, helped us to relate it to our own lives.

Peter Jennings earned our trust. He made a difference in this world and in our homes. His life will be remembered and celebrated for years to come.
Written by Jeannette Vagnozzi
1 chimed in

Tuesday, August 02, 2005
Pick a Card, Any Card
On a whim I had an online Tarot card reading. I can hear the gasps as members of my family read that line. I know, I know. Yes, it is pagan (What a word! How often do you use that word? I’ll have to work it in this post again!). It is definitely not an answer to WWJD? It was a whim. You know, something to do for fun and not to be taken seriously. The card in my “Higher Power” position was interpreted as “You should have elected this for special reasons -- you knew you were strong enough; it wouldn't be fatal or cause permanent damage; and in your great compassion you saw that you could help others whose vulnerability or fragility would make this experience too devastating for them.” I started to think. . . . .

Just a few days ago I wrote about a friend of mine who just finished radiation. Early on in her diagnosis we spoke to each other about possible treatments she might face. She was very worried about chemotherapy. She is self-employed and was developing a list of questions about how treatment for breast cancer would affect her life. When she realized that she didn’t need chemotherapy, she told me with excitement then embarrassingly turned her head away and said she felt bad boasting about it when I had to face it. I didn’t feel badly that she didn’t need chemo – just the opposite! Who would wish that on a friend? I’ve grown to understand how she felt though. To some degree, it is a form of survivor guilt.

The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy defines survivor guilt as a deep sense of guilt felt by those who survived some catastrophe. Survivors often feel that they are unworthy relative to the perished or those who have suffered more in comparison. By definition, there is an implied comparison with people who have endured similar ordeals. Although survivor guilt was first associated with survivors of the Holocaust, the term is now more widely associated with many more applications including chronic or catastrophic illness.

Instead of examining the “why me?” syndrome, survivor guilt is all about the “why not me?” feelings. I find these feelings especially prevalent when interacting with fellow cancer bloggers. I was devastated for Cancer, Baby when she wrote about her recurrence. My heart breaks for Louise, Rae, Jen, and Spike when they write about facing infertility in their twenties. Sandee is going through terrible problems because of her compromised immune system and the side effects of the chemo. Sandee is full of so much love for her family and for life and she spends so much of her time comforting all of us. Lori and Cary have been sharing their experiences that started just seven weeks after they married. Their love is amazing. Shelly is a new friend that writes with eloquence about dealing with life and her recurrence of cervical cancer (her August 1 entry is beautiful). Mary is new to the journey and has already had her share of ups and downs.

A huge part of me is so grateful for finding people with similar experiences. Another part of me, the fixer, wants to make things better. I would take their burdens, if I could, if it made things easier for them. Even though I have been embracing my joy and humming every tune I hear, I wrestle with these feelings. I hate to see pain or suffering. I don’t like to experience it either, but somehow feel that I can handle more than my share so someone else doesn’t have to experience as much. While I feel blessed to be cancer free and well on the road to recovery, deep down I need others to join me to validate this positive experience. If they are well, I can be well too. I need somehow to find a healthy balance of embracing my own joy and empathizing with others.

Hmmm… that one (pagan, evil, bad) card was indeed revealing for me. I pulled the card, either by fate or chance, that described me. Either that or all the stories of Christian martyrs recalled from my youth told by Catholic nuns with Irish accents had a slightly unhealthy impact on my perception of compassion. Now pardon me while I go say some rosaries, thumb through my holy cards, and try to get the other cards out of my mind. Where is my holy water?

(By the way, I’m still singing!)
Written by Jeannette Vagnozzi
4 chimed in

Name: Jeannette
Location: Southern California, USA

This is my story about being diagnosed with breast cancer at age 39. I thought I was out of the woods, but four years late it came back. This is my quest to be a two-time survivor.

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    "Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer." Romans 12:12