Saturday, April 22, 2006
New Home: More than Just a Tax Deduction.
It's amazing what you learn when you move. Things like, 100 boxes still look like 100 boxes even if you put them in twice as much space, having my laundry facilities upstairs puts the "high efficiency" in the high efficiency washer, and by now Ralph Lauren should have named a child after me (or at least a favorite pet). It has been such an exhaustive and transitional few weeks, but I now write to you from the comfort of my new home office in my new home in my new city in my new county. It is amazing how the new home lies in such stark contrast to the old place, just as my life at the old place lies in stark contrast to the promise the new home brings.

Long before I ever heard the words, "I'm sorry, but it's cancer," something had crept inside of me and was taking my life. I'm not sure how it happened or even when it happened, but the signs were there. I feel like I exorcised those demons (or at least donated them to Goodwill) as I packed my belongings. The part of me that stopped living in that house years ago was bid adieu as I packed up the part of me that wants to live and set off. So far, in the new home I have unpacked purpose, passion, and pride and there are still so many boxes left to open.

I went back to the old place and instead of being sentimental remembering all the great memories, it was mournful. I flashed back to the day I sat staring at my closet unable to find anything to wear the first day I would wear my wig into the office. I remembered walking through the doors after my first chemo treatment. The house felt so dark and empty. Instead of remembering that New Year's party when I rigged balloons to fall from the ceiling, I could only remember the cold, dark days of illness. Everything about it seemed dark.

As I walk through the doors of my new home, I am struck by the light coming at me from all angles. The irises and lilies are blooming in the garden. Two young girls came to my door the first day to welcome me to the neighborhood. They came back later with three friends and sang me a song. Everything about this place screams life. It is unavoidable.

As much as I am trying to figure out what "normal" life is for me post treatment/surgery and continue to struggle with the lymphadema, the skin irritation on my legs, figuring out which neckline works with my reconstructed breasts, and adjusting to the persistent discomfort of the scar tissue, I finally feel like I have in many ways moved forward into a new phase of my life. Moving on has been as much a metaphor for my mental state as it has been a physical reality.

New home, new hope.
Written by Jeannette Vagnozzi
11 chimed in

Friday, April 07, 2006
Creating Community
If you haven't taken the opportunity to check out Traveling Hope, please drop by. I have finally posted the first scanned images from the traveling journals. The entries are warm, hopeful, loving, memorable, and more than I ever anticipated. It is so different to hold the books, feel the pages, see the images in person as opposed to online. If your life has been touched by cancer, I hope you consider participating.

For those of you new to this project, Traveling Hope is a community journal project that seeks to connect those whose lives have been touched by cancer. The waiting list for journals is growing quickly and I may add more journals to keep it moving along. You can read all about the project and find answers to the frequently asked questions.

Much thanks to Greg, Amanda, and Shelley for creating the opening entries in each of the journals in circulation. The journals are currently on route to the much loved Sandee in Quebec, to Anna in Endinburgh, Scotland, and to Crystal in New Hampshire. Should I add you to the list?
Written by Jeannette Vagnozzi
1 chimed in

Wednesday, April 05, 2006
Another Round, Anyone? (Or, How Many Times Can I Say "Perhaps"?)
So the comments on the last post made me realize I am not the annoyed "survivor" I sometimes feel. Thank you for making me feel normal (although that's another word I am growing to dislike nearly as much as survivor). Thanks Carolyn, Kranki, Zee, Seaneen (John?), Brainhell, and Greg for your comments. I struggle at times with the notion that I need to make everyone else around me feel comfortable with cancer and how I am feeling, even at this point in the game. It is nice to know that others have the same perspective on the topic. I would like to say to Jill, the author who interviewed me, if you are still reading, I mean no disrespect. I know that you had your own life threatening experience with a chronic illness and I respect your experience as well as the chance to reflect on my own experience from a somewhat different perspective. Unfortunately, once I start thinking, everyone is in trouble. It seems I have much more to say.

I have read many times in various essays and on blogs about this concept of gifts and how "cancer has changed me for the better." There was a time when I may have understood (yet not embraced) this concept. It was right around the time I was so broken emotionally and physically by chemotherapy. I felt that with each treatment, the life was literally being drained from me, body and soul. By the time I was done, I was a shell of myself, hollow, withdrawn, and even doubtful. It may not have been so apparent to those who saw me or even those closest to me, but I felt like I was traveling in an almost eerie zombie-like state, feeling nothing but the ache of my physical form.

Once my blood counts began to recover and I was further and further from treatment, I started to feel life entering my body once again. I could almost feel the transformation evolve as if I were watching the magical colorization of a black and white photo. The sepia tones leaving the frame as the vibrant colors began emerging. Of course this physical response to the absence of chemo impacted my emotional state as well. The better I felt physically, a feeling almost of euphoria was filling my psyche. And perhaps the psychological impact of being told that the chemo had been successful prodded the body to respond in kind as well. In retrospect, clearly a mind body connection was in some transactional state that to some degree spurred on recovery.

Perhaps it is at this time that the proclamation of a gift or a changed person is announced. Perhaps the pendulum swinging from the broken physical state to a state of recovery kicks up the momentum of the emotional pendulum, which combined with the rush of hormones formerly repressed by the chemo drugs, causes an emotional response to a physical resurgence. Or are we so broken that the tiniest ray of light feels like a beacon?

Or perhaps the gift does exist, but the nagging voice in the back of the mind that randomly whispers tales of the beast waiting to pounce unannounced cynically beats down the joy of the gift. I'm no psychologist, nor do I play one on TV; however, I think it is not only overly simplistic, but could even be disrespectful to put illness on the level of a gift.

As human beings we continue to evolve with each experience. The virtuous person, as Aristotle would say, grows with each learning experience and faces each life experience as a learning experience. In fact, he might say we have a moral obligation to learn from our life experiences. So if I had been physically beaten by an assailant, recovered, and then discovered something about life, would you dare tell me that being beaten was a gift? What about the woman on welfare who lost everything in Hurricane Katrina, including her child? She was evacuated to Houston where she found a job and began a new life. Would you dare suggest that Hurricane Katrina was the best thing that happened to her? Or a gift? Or how about the couple I met at Relay for Life who met in a grief support group after they each lost their spouse to cancer. Their love is a gift, but losing their spouses? Not so much.

My point is that it is not the tragic occurrence that is the gift. Rather it is the power of the human spirit to make the best of the worst situation, the power of the mind to extract the best from a painful lesson, or simply it is a state of grace. Frankly, I will never believe that an experience that rendered me infertile, caused the loss of both my breasts, and has taken a piece of every joyful moment I have experienced since to be a gift. I will always remember fondly the gifts given me in the moments spent with friends, in the laughter that somehow graced each post-chemo recovery weekend with my sister, in the joy of creation I witnessed in each sunrise I woke to greet, in the lessons I learned about appreciating the moment and stopping to live in the moment. Lessons perhaps, gifts no. Simply, the gifts are in the living, not the living with illness.
Written by Jeannette Vagnozzi
6 chimed in

Monday, April 03, 2006
The Who of What?
This morning I agreed to be interviewed for a book dealing with life after a chronic or life-threatening illness. When the author first contacted me, I was interested in the topic. There are currently 10,000,000 cancer survivors living in the United States alone. Medically we are making advances, but we are leaving a large number of people in this weird limbo ill-equipped to maneuver the course. It's a topic that needs to be discussed.

The author was kind and friendly and agreed to send me a copy of the first chapter so I got a flavor of the book. When I read it, I wondered why I agreed to this interview. Her focus for this book is to discover the gifts of illness. Even typing the "gifts of illness" makes my stomach turn a bit. Where is the gift in all this? Is it the constant looking over my shoulder? Is it the paranoia that each ache, pain, or discomfort is something more than it seems? Is it the lymphadema? HMO headaches? Perhaps it is the aching scars? And if there is truly a gift, where is the receipt because I want my money back or at least an exchange. This is what came to mind as I read the first chapter.

But I agreed to the interview and I am nothing if not responsible. The author, Jill, called me and we began talking. She was courteous, warm, and compassionate and had her interview nicely organized. As we began to talk about the various aspects of my experience, I started to remember things and put things in perspective a bit. Her last question was about if I had the chance to go back in time and choose to go forward from the point of diagnosis not having had cancer or simply proceed as my life had unbfolded. I thought long and hard about this because it has not been easy lately and the challenges, long term side-effects from treatment, and lingering issues have provoked anger and frustration. My gut instinct was to say give me the option with no cancer.

But as our conversation evolved I realized that the cancer experience can focus or sharpen your perspective on what is truly important in life. While I can't say that I learned anything I wouldn't have learned over time, I can feel a different passion for a different kind of living. While I would never say that cancer changed me for the better, I simply made the best of it. My answer, surprisingly, was to let my life unfold as it had.

But it's still not a gift.


*The book will be out the spring of '07.
Written by Jeannette Vagnozzi
6 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