Friday, December 30, 2005
Welcoming the Stillness
Today I was asked if I'd do it all over again. The question was in reference to the bilateral mastectomy and reconstruction. While the conversation went on with me justifying my choices, my mind wandered off to view from a distance the past two years.

2004 will always be the year I found out I had breast cancer. I will not remember 2004 as the year Wangari Maathai of Kenya was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, or Spain was rocked by a terrorist attack, or Paul Hamm found himself in the middle of an Olympic gold medal controversy in Greece, or Martha Stewart was sentenced to prison, or the Boston Red Sox finally became world champs, or even the year that Ashlee Simpson launched her Autobiography. It will remain simply the year I was diagnosed with breast cancer. It was in fact a year of deconstructing, if you will. A year of destroying cancer and salvaging a life.

2005 has been different. In many ways, especially physically, it has been a year of reconstructing. A year of reconstructing my body and my life as a person who has battled cancer. Reconstructing my body has been easier than reconstructing my psyche. Though I still have physical details to finish which seem to go on ad nauseum, at least there is a check list to complete in order to be declared as physically whole as they can make me. There will be a time when Dr. Fabulous proclaims me complete from a plastic surgery perspective. I'm still looking for the check list to complete my mental health wholeness. Even at times when I feel my strongest, the reality-plagued thoughts rear their ugliness and leave me feeling broken in a way that seems can never be made whole again. Then I take a breath and move forward. Somehow.

Unlike 2004, a year focused on battling cancer, 2005 has allowed me to appreciate the world that exists beyond myself and appreciate a broader existence. Even with the chaos of my life, 2005 will not simply be remembered as my year of reconstructing. I will also remember it as the year the love of my life, Bono, was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, the nation demonstrated its compassion and generosity in the wake of hurricanes Katrina et al, a new Pope was chosen, a new Tour de France record was established by Lance Armstrong, a new Supreme Court Justice was appointed, and after a little-noticed break, the National Hockey League returned. All of these portend hope and new beginnings and propel me into 2006 with new goals and desires.

I hereby declare 2006 as the year of stillness. In 2006 there will be no deconstructing, reconstructing, or forced growth thrust upon me. I have been so focused on battling cancer, looking for signs of recurrence, and rebuilding my body that life has been happening around me. I plan to be still, embrace each moment, and make each one count. I want to feel what is all around me, experience the moment, and savor the journey. I can't do that without being still and present.

I welcome the stillness in 2006 and, with it, I welcome life. Care to join me?
Written by Jeannette Vagnozzi
10 chimed in

Wednesday, December 28, 2005
Cindy Brady, the Homeless, and Christmas Miracles
Just a few days before Christmas I found myself blue and weepy. In fact, I wrote, “. . . it would take a Christmas miracle to stop the tears from falling.” It was difficult to truly verbalize how I was feeling and the multitude of conflicting emotions. Part of me wished I could just sit on Santa’s lap and tell him the wishes of my heart so that on Christmas morning it could all be better. Isn’t that how all the Christmas television specials are resolved? Didn’t Cindy Brady ask Santa for her mommy’s voice to come back so she could sing on Christmas morning? Lo and behold, wasn’t that Carol Brady singing a solo on Christmas morning even though she had been suffering from laryngitis for days?

Somehow, even I, the self-confessed recovering television junkie, knew that it would indeed take a real Christmas miracle and not a made-for-TV-scripted moment. Sure, I would go to church and sing carols of glad tidings and share special moments with my family exchanging presents and sharing in our many traditions. And while I take great comfort in the traditions and festivities, it still felt like simple motions barely concealing a crumbling heart.

On Christmas morning after attending Mass with my family, I sped off to Pasadena to join friends volunteering with a homeless shelter. A friend of mine convinced me that getting out of my own head might be just what I needed to shake the blues. He had volunteered with this shelter in the past and promised me I would not soon forget the experience. The shelter sponsors a holiday celebration in the park complete with Christmas dinner, entertainment, and Christmas presents for the children. Yes, even Christmas presents for the children who come from homeless families (I have to repeat this to myself because even the concept of homeless families and children is so far from my reality that I cannot seem to truly grasp it).

Continuing to detach myself emotionally, I began to help Santa distribute presents to the children. At first it was difficult trying to figure out what types of toys would be most appropriate for the kids. Nearly everyone was happy, excited, and thrilled with the generous presents that had been donated from the community. I was on task, focused on getting the children's ages and selecting presents, and moving the process right along as if robotic. And that is when I saw her.

She had brown hair pulled back into two pony tails on either side of her head. She was a tiny girl, the top of her head barely reaching her mother's hip. She shyly stood as close to her mother as possible, one arm looped around momma's thigh, clutching the polaroid of her on Santa's lap just given to her moments before by one of Santa's "elves."

I heard someone say “girl age 3” and I reached down to select a couple of books, a stuffed animal, and the sweetest “real baby” baby doll complete with accessories hoping she would like the selection. As I turned to hand them to the little girl, her big brown eyes got even bigger, her smile lit up the park, and she looked at the box with the baby doll and looked at me and looked back down as if she didn’t believe it was hers to take with her. I gave it to her and she looked up at her smiling mother with tears in her eyes nodding her approval. She gently took the box and, if it were possible, her smile grew even bigger, more electric. I never heard her speak, but I watched her walk off with her mother, alternating between looking at her new baby doll and smiling up at her mother.

I could tell several more stories of little girls getting Barbie Princesses and little boys excited about new Legos. Christmas in the park was a lovely day. The sun broke through the early morning fog, the food appeared plentiful, and the camaraderie was joyous. For many people, including the many volunteers, there was indeed a Christmas miracle. And while on this morning it didn’t take place in a manger, or get scripted in a sitcom, it was evident in the big brown eyes of a joyous little girl who at this very moment is likely hugging tightly her brand new baby doll.

Sometimes, you just need to break away from your own reality to appreciate everything about the life you have and miracles that take place in your own life everyday.
Written by Jeannette Vagnozzi
1 chimed in

Saturday, December 24, 2005
Merry Christmas
No matter what experiences I face on life's journey, the one thing that never ceases to amaze me is the incredible healing power of love.

Love is the hearty laughter among old friends and family.

Love is a friend understanding just what you need to snap you out of the Christmas blues.

Love is the excitement on someone's face as they open an unexpected present.

Love is the warm embrace of a parent.

Love is what joins two sisters' hearts.

Love is what we exchange when we take the time to really listen to each other.

Love is reaching out to others and expecting nothing in return.

Love is born this day.

Merry Christmas.
May the love of this holiday fill your hearts, heal you, and be with you always.
Written by Jeannette Vagnozzi
4 chimed in

Tuesday, December 20, 2005
The Ghosts of Christmas Past and Present

I’ll admit it; I’ve been in a funk. I’m not sure if it is a holiday funk, a cancer funk, or just a general funk. It is strange, because I was very cheerful and gleefully anticipating the holidays prior to the onset of this funk. So what’s a girl to do to bring up the level of Christmas cheer?

Last night I drove around for a bit looking at Christmas decorations while Christmas carols played on my car stereo. I observed a few things on this trek for holiday joy.

First, what is with Christmas decorations? Is it my imagination or are they getting tackier, bigger, and scarier? Take for example the oversized lawn snow globe complete with circulating snow and Santa waving at passersby. When snow globes are their actual small size featuring a miniature scene, they are nostalgic and sweet. They capture a memory or an image so you can relive it with just a shake of the globe. When snow globes are giant-sized on a lawn, it calls to mind the 1976 John Travolta classic, The Boy in the Plastic Bubble (or for you younger folks, how about Bubble Boy?). It goes from being sweet to representing some immune system disorder. Merry Christmas to all from the jolly old elf with a medical condition. What next? I guess this is what happens in a location that has no snow to glisten and reflect the festive holiday lights.

But that is just me. I’m a little uptight about my decorations. I dislike lights haphazardly thrown about a yard, those crazy light nets that cover bushes, and lights that are swirled to imitate the shape of a Christmas tree. I prefer lights that outline a house and the windows and twinkle in the trees. I like tasteful wreaths adorning the doors. I like outdoor lights that don’t seem to overshadow the reflection of the Christmas tree lights in the window. I like sweet simple holiday pleasures, not lights that seem to be up for the sake of volume.

As the radio played on, I couldn’t help but wonder if it was my ears or was Brenda Lee singing “Wocking Awound the Christmas Tree?” Well, that and listening to Christmas carols on the radio reminded me of one of my sweetest holiday memories. I was pretty young and desperately trying to hold on to the belief in a Santa. We had just finished our traditional Italian Christmas Eve seafood feast and we were supposed to rest before going to Midnight Mass. I had hard plastic curlers in my hair and I was filled with excitement as I looked at all the presents under the tree. My big sister, Jan, made me lay down with her for a while and listen to the Santa tracker on the radio. The Santa tracker would periodically break into the Christmas carols to let us know where Santa’s sleigh had last been reportedly seen. Looking back, I think they would announce various places in the world as they were welcoming the stroke of midnight.

I remember laying there in the warm embrace of my big sister, hearing the gentle sounds of jingling bells and angelic voices singing of Christmas promises, seeing the glow of the Christmas lights outside the window, feeling safe, and knowing that something special was about to happen.

All of a sudden I realized what was missing this holiday season, how everything in my life had changed, and why it would take a Christmas miracle to stop the tears from falling.
Written by Jeannette Vagnozzi
8 chimed in

Saturday, December 17, 2005
Every year during the rush of Christmas shopping, my sister and I always take a break to catch a holiday film, usually a comedy or love story. This year we opted for The Family Stone. If you were to read the reviews and watch the trailers, it looks like a comedy with some family reality thrown in for balance. It's more drama with some comedy thrown in for balance. More importantly, not once have a I heard or seen anything about a breast cancer story line woven into the plot.

This is my Christmas gift to all my breast cancer friends out there:

See this movie at your own risk. Be warned that this movie shows briefly not only the emotional, but also the physical consequences of breast cancer. It is a small, but significant story line. If you or someone you love have been treated for breast cancer and feared/experienced recurrence, then please know that THIS MOVIE WILL NOT BRING YOU HOLIDAY JOY. This movie may in fact cause you to sob uncontrollably in a theatre on a day you forgot your sunglasses forcing you to walk out of the theatre in broad daylight with no makeup, red swollen eyes, and tear-stained cheeks.

If I were to separate myself (impossible as it is) from the breast cancer subplot, I will say that it is handled very tastefully and beautifully. We have come a long way in being able to address breast cancer freely and openly to have an intimate scene between a husband and a wife with a mastectomy still be an intimate scene without the mastectomy stealing the focus. In fact, the whole breast cancer subplot does not overtake the movie at all. It simply punctuates the drama. If you are perhaps more emotionally stable than I am at this point in time where this subject is concerned, you may appreciate how it is handled. It is in retrospect a good movie with very fine acting by a talented ensemble.

Have I said too much? Perhaps. I just want to save anyone else from being blindsided. Had I known about it, I would have waited to see it until after the holidays and perhaps even next year or even later.

If your spirits are up or you are trying to raise your spirits, I recommend staying home and watching a classic on video. White Christmas, Holiday Inn, It's a Wonderful Life, A Charlie Brown Christmas are all good choices for holiday joy.

Scratch that. . . .Those are all good choices for some Christmas joy.
Written by Jeannette Vagnozzi
6 chimed in

Friday, December 16, 2005
He's Making a List
Dear Santa,

I'm not one to ask for much, really, but I had a few questions on my mind this year. Being the wise old elf that you are, I was hoping you could help me out with them. I even promise to put a little something extra in your soy milk this year, if you can come up with a few answers.

First of all, what is a "Capitol Tree?" Even a "Holiday Tree" seems a bit strange. In the town where I grew up, next to the tree decorated with multicolored lights, each year a giant Menorah stood proudly through the days of Chanukah. I would never refer to it as a "Holiday Candle." If you celebrate Chanukah, you will have a Menorah. If you celebrate Christmas, then why can't we have a Christmas Tree? Perhaps if I decorated the tree with dradles, the "first harvest" fruits of Kwanzaa, as well as angels, snowflakes, reflector ornaments, and lights, then we could call it a holiday tree. Until then, lets call a Christmas tree a Christmas tree. Why is it that to make something politically correct we have to lose some of the meaning and symbolism?

Secondly, if you have been reading my blog, you might recall my recent reconstruction surgery. The other day I noticed the lovely scars that extend on both sides from my cleavage past my underarms to my back in a "swooshing" pattern. Do you have any connection at Nike? I was thinking that perhaps an endorsement deal might not be so out of reach after all. Talk about product branding.

And finally, I have just one more question. Why do we have to shop so much if you make and bring all the gifts? I've never been able to figure that out . . . well . . . that and why your handwriting was identical to my mother's handwriting. Hmmm.

P.S. I promise I've been good (whether I wanted to be or not).
Written by Jeannette Vagnozzi
0 chimed in

Monday, December 12, 2005
What a Difference a Year Makes
This past weekend while I polished up my mom's house in preparation for the holidays and shopped until I could carry no more, I realized what a difference a year makes. This same time last year I was recovering from a bilateral mastectomy, dealing with those nasty post-surgical JP drains, relying on my sister to help me shower and dress, unable to raise my arms or carry a thing, and always feeling chilled from the draft to my head where the hair had yet to reappear after chemo.

This year has been different. While still recovering somewhat from reconstructive surgery nearly four weeks ago, I found myself polishing furniture and cleaning windows with vigor. And when I hopped in the shower to get ready for a party, I could do it all myself and even had hair to style. I can hug people with ease to wish them a Merry Christmas and I can feel the warmth of those hugs in return.

It is a different year indeed.
Written by Jeannette Vagnozzi
5 chimed in

Tuesday, December 06, 2005
All I Wanted for Christmas was my Two . . . .
I can hear him now.

"Dear Self, er, I mean God. Oops, I keep getting us confused."

At my second post op check-up, my plastic surgeon proclaimed his work fabulous. He was quite pleased with his work. In fact he went on and on about why he didn't think "they" would ever look good at all. In the end, however, the mighty hand of the surgeon prevailed and I should be forever grateful for his determination to bestow me with fabulous results.

In the end, I am forever grateful to Dr. Fabulous. Granted, the girls are what they are and the term "fabulous" is relative. The best part is that I don't have to schlep out there for three months at which time we will fill in the "details." And after I asked him if he could show me one more time how to massage them just right, I realized how much of a journey we have shared. He was Dr. CrankyPants at first, constantly telling me what not to expect (which was everything I asked about). He never set me up to have high expectations or any expectations at all. Moments before my first surgery I had to remind him to think positively -- yes, just before I went under for the longest and most significant surgery of my life, I was telling my surgeon to think positively. Somewhere along the line, his genuine goodness won me over and my smart-ass humor warmed up Dr. CrankyPants, turned him into self-proclaimed Dr. Fabulous, and, in the end, my diligence and his skill, along with our mutual respect, produced a good result.

As my sister, Joyce says, there is a lesson in everything. So what is the moral of this story? I think there may be two. First, always establish a personal relationship with your doctor. When you are both at ease, it makes the process go more smoothly and comfortably for both of you. Who wants to be the person the doctor dreads seeing? Secondly, and perhaps most importantly for me, for the first time since my surgery last year, a man looked at my breasts and proclaimed them fabulous. Now that's a present I hadn't even thought of putting on my Christmas wish list.
Written by Jeannette Vagnozzi
5 chimed in

Monday, December 05, 2005
Sometimes I Cry in the Shower
It is the holiday season. Finally there is a chill in the air here in Southern California and it actually feels like the holiday season. More importantly than the weather, it is easy to know it is the holiday season because of parking lot behavior. Just the other day, I was waiting for a parked car to back out so I could take the last remaining parking space in the lot when out of no where, a woman with her child in a minivan swooped in from the side and took the spot. I am never one to incite another driver or invite confrontation; however, upon the stealth maneuver which claimed the spot that was rightly mine, the woman laughed. I was not angry about her usurping the parking space, I was upset at what she was teaching her child.

I did, however, stop by her car, stare at her, and act as though I was waiting for her to get out of her car. I did not plan to do anything nor say anything to her. My plan was to make her complete the lesson to her child. If you are going to drive like an ass, then be sure to know how to evade the ire you just provoked. It was all in the name of safety for her child as, apparently, that was not this woman's concern. After a moment of making her uncomfortably fidget in her car and avoid all eye contact with me, I proceeded to the next parking garage to find a space much further away. In the end I was grateful for the exercise.

The whole experience made me realize that this is the time of year to pay attention to safe driving as people are either rushed, tired, sauced, or paying attention to sugar-highed children. I guess instead of silently crying in the privacy of my own car, I should concentrate more and leave the tears for my other favorite place, the shower. I'm not sure why, but these two places seem to be the only place where it feels comfortable to let go. You just never know where those holiday blues will sneak up out of nowhere and takeover your space.
Written by Jeannette Vagnozzi
5 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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