Saturday, December 10, 2016

I read a lot. (2016 Reading Challenge Completed!)

Back on January 1st, I saw this Reading Challenge posted on the Modern Mrs. Darcy blog (how cool is that title?!). I had a New Year's Resolution (I generally don't do those), and I actually completed it for the first time ever. One of my favorite failed resolutions: Wear makeup (it happened for about 2 weeks, typical!).

I decided it would be fun and started a group on Facebook to share the challenge, talk about books, and to keep me accountable. I knew I'd have no problem reading 12 books in 2016 (I am a librarian, after all), but I loved the idea of reading outside of my comfort zone and reading things I otherwise wouldn't have. I'd love if you let me know about what you've been reading. I love to discuss books!

Here's what I ended up reading:

1. A book published this year: Raymie Nightingale by Kate DiCamillo

Back in March I got to see one of my favorite Speaker/Librarians/Bloggers, Mr. Schumacher, at a Scholastic event. He spoke about Raymie, which was released in April of this year. It was about a girl named Raymie and 2 of her unlikely friends. They have adventures and learn lessons. I enjoyed it. Kate DiCamillo is always a delight (Because of Winn Dixie, The Tale of Despereaux, Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane). When I think of Kate DiCamillo, I think of the following quote by E.B. White (author of Charlottes Web and others): "Anyone who writes down to children is simply wasting his time. You have to write up, not down. Children are demanding." DiCamillo certainly accomplishes this. Her books are loved by children and adults, just ask Mr. Schu. 

Other books I've read this year that could fit in this category: The Cursed Child by Jack Thorne and Ghosts by Raina Telgemeier

2. A book you can finish in a day: Shopgirl by Steve Martin

I love this story. I love the movie of the same name that stars Steve Martin, Claire Danes, and Jason Schwartzman. Mirabelle Buttersfield (Claire Danes) has a May/December relationship with Ray Porter (Steve Martin). They love each other, but not in the same way. Not unexpectedly, Ray ends up breaking Mirabelle's heart. Meanwhile, Jeremy (Jason Schwartzman), a romantic acquaintance of Mirabelle's, engages in a quest for self-improvement, and grows into a person worthy of Mirabelle. My husband once asked why I like this so much, and if I somehow identify with Mirabelle's love for Ray Porter. That's not what most appeals to me about this novella or movie. It's Jeremy. Though I do love the actor, Jason Schwartzman, I love his character and how he grows up and becomes the right match for Mirabelle. Interestingly, I have the same love for Rob Fleming in Nick Hornby's High Fidelity and Will Freeman of About A Boy, again by Nick Hornby. So perhaps it can be concluded I enjoy male characters who mature through the course of the work. If you'd like to psychoanalyze this admission, go ahead. But do report back, I'd be curious.

Most of the graphic novels I read could have been read in a day, but I have mentioned them elsewhere.

3. A book you've been meaning to read: Escape from Mr. Lemoncello's Library by Chris Grabenstein

A children's novel meant for the intermediate grades (3rd through 5th-ish). It was cute, and I'd definitely recommend it to kids, teachers, and parents. It reminded me a bit of Roald Dahl, beloved author of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

Another book I read this year that fits this category: Red Kayak by Priscilla Cummings (blog post here)

4. A book recommended by your local librarian or bookseller: 13 Reasons Why by Jay Asher

This year I switched schools and went from an elementary school to a high school. This was a welcome change, though I certainly miss my old students, colleagues, and even the building itself. I left a piece of my heart there (corny, but metaphorically true). To prepare for my new position, I started reading Young Adult titles voraciously. I asked the librarian whose job I replaced (she retired) for recommendations, and I read several books that she suggested, though for whatever reason this is the one I decided fulfilled the Reading Challenge. High school senior Clay Jensen is "gifted" with 7 cassette tapes he soon discovers is the recorded suicide note of his classmate Hannah Baker. On these 7 tapes (13 "sides") are messages for the 13 people who she feels somehow contributed to her decision to kill herself. It's heartbreaking and a little sickening, but also the sort of book that I couldn't put down. I'm a semester in to my new role at the high school, and the kids really like this one, too.

Other books I've read this year that fits this category: Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor, All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven (my review here), Ghostworld by Clowes

5. A book you should have read in school: Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

I don't even know where to begin. I loved, loved, LOVED this book. It's a shame I didn't actually read this in high school when I should have, though I do not think I would have appreciated it as much. If you haven't read it, it's about the Joad family trying to survive the Great Depression. They travel west to California hoping to find work, food, etc, only to discover their troubles follow them. What struck me the most about this novel is how kind the Joad family was despite everything terrible that kept happening to them. It didn't matter how hard they worked, they couldn't seem to get ahead. I found this book still relevant 75+ years after it was written.

As far as I can recall, this is the only book I remember actively avoiding in high school (and college!). Were I to have to revisit this category, I would probably pick something that "many people read in school but you somehow missed." And I'd probably go with Slaughterhouse Five by Vonnegut.

6. A book chosen for you by your spouse, partner, sibling, child, or BFF: Sorcerer to the Crown by
Zen Cho

Sorcerer to the Crown was recommended to me by my BFF. She recommended it because I loved Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke. It is definitely a good read-alike, though I did not enjoy Sorcerer nearly as much as the Clarke title. Both titles are about the decline of British magic and how it returns to England. I love the fantasy genre so these were both good picks.

Also recommended to me by my BFF in 2016: Nimona by Noelle Stevenson.

7. A book published before you were born: Nine Stories by J.D. Salinger

I read Catcher in the Rye by Salinger a decade or more ago, but I was interested in his short stories. Of the nine stories I enjoyed "For Esme- with Love and Squalor" and "Teddy."I confess, I would read an analysis of the short work immediately after reading the work itself. Salinger's writing isn't always straightforward; some pieces are allegorical and some are more social commentary than an actual stories. I enjoyed this experience, though I'm unlikely to recommend the collection to anyone for pleasure reading, unless they happen to love Catcher.

8. A book that was banned at some point: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

This book is read by the freshman at my school. They seem to really like it. I LOVED it. It manages to be really funny and really sad. The main character, Junior, attends high school off the reservation, or "rez", and is rejected by his Native American peers. He is largely welcomed by his new high school, but he doesn't quite fit in there, either. So he's caught between home and opportunity. The book also addresses how alcoholism has affected Junior (and thereby describes the role of alcoholism within Native American communities).

9. A book you previously abandoned: A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

I previously abandoned this book because I started it before Christmas and didn't feel like finishing it after Christmas. So this is the book I just finished today, December 10th. I really enjoyed this one as well. The story is often retold and the moral is an obvious one: be generous/good/kind/etc while you have a chance. Dickens's writing is sometimes a little wordy, but this story was worthwhile. And who doesn't like the opportunity to reflect upon self-improvement?

I didn't read any other books that could satisfy this category, but I tried. I attempted The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien for the 3rd (!) time. I know, I know, it's a short book that kids read. I just cannot. Maybe when my own kids beg me to read it to them, sure, but even then I might pass that task along to my husband.

10. A book you own but have never read: Dead in the Family: A Sookie Stackhouse Novel (#10 in a series)

I've read other Sookie Stackhouse novels. Though they are sequential it is not supremely necessary you read 1-9 before you read 10. I think I read them mostly in order over the past several years. They are fun, light reads. If you aren't familiar, the HBO series True Blood is based on these books, though after the first book and first season, they stray very far from each other. I enjoy both the TV series and the books, but as separate works. I appreciate each differently.

11. A book that intimidates you: The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way by Amanda Ripley

There are lots of books out there that intimidate me. Ulysses by James Joyce, for example. Rather than struggle through a book, I decided to interpret this as intimidating content. The Smartest Kids in the World is by journalist Amanda Ripley, who weaves the stories of three American Exchange students with data and analyses of different education systems that are considered more successful than US schools by certain measures. It was fascinating. What I took away: we (Americans) have a different set of values that do not necessarily include success in school. Other successful education systems have become more successful (as measured by test scores) by improving teacher education: making the process more rigorous and prestigious. Imagine that. Countries that revere teachers have more successful educational outcomes. But, alas, correlation is not causation, and I think our school system (where I live, anyways) is pretty darn good.

Other books that I read in 2016 that intimidated me: Enrique's Journey: The story of a boy's dangerous odessy to to reunite with his mother by Sonia Nazario and I am Malala: How One Girl Stood Up for Education and Changed the World by Malala Yousafzai

Reflecting upon these 3 books, one could draw the conclusion that I am largely intimidated by nonfiction (probably not untrue).

12. A book you've already read at least once: Smile by Raina Telgemeier

This book just makes me happy. It is an autobiographical work by Raina Telgemeier. She has to have painful dental and orthodontia work as an adolescent, and the story centers around these experiences. Telgemeier is about my age, so it spoke to me (New Kids on the Block Tickets and Caboodles, anyone?). I do have to say kids/preteens/teens LOVE this book, so it's not just people who are 35ish. Telgemeier captures adolescence so perfectly. This is also one of the first graphic novels I read that made me want to read more graphic novels. I highly recommend this book to nearly anyone.

Other books I read this year that fit this category: Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan (I wrote about it here) and Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson

So I read at least 12 books that fit these 12 categories and mentioned a few more titles I read in 2016. I actually read more than what I listed here, for work, book clubs, etc. I thought about listing them all, but that intimidated me. Plus, it would take time away from reading more. I do get asked a lot when I find the time to read, and the truth is, I read mostly in the morning while I drink my coffee (between 5 & 6 am). So I read 30 minutes to an hour a day, on average. That amounts to anywhere between 182 and 365 hours a year (I don't keep strict track), so even if it took me 10 hours to read a book (it usually doesn't), I'm on track to read at least 18 books a year. I listed 22 books here and probably read at least a dozen others. Another trick besides early morning reading: I watch less TV than I read. So I watch less than an 30 minutes of TV a day, on average. Not kidding. Sometimes I watch 90 minutes a day (think Gilmore Girls revival), and sometimes I go days without watching any. I do not read books at work, contrary to what many people think about what librarians do all day. I do read for work, but mostly academic articles, excerpts from books, literary analyses, etc. You are very unlikely to find me with a book in hand at my desk.

I don't know if I'll participate in a 2017 Reading Challenge, but I do know I will continue to read for work and for pleasure. I hope you do, too!

Thursday, November 17, 2016

World Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Day

Today I wear purple for pancreatic cancer awareness day; slacktivism at its finest. Since medical research isn't my thing, I donated to the Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Network ( and encourage you to do the same. Why, you ask? I technically had pancreatic cancer at the ripe old age of 33. It was and is a big deal in my life. I got the "good" pancreatic cancer, but it is a diagnosis that I can't forget, as it's not unheard of to show up again 5, 10, or even 15 years after curative surgery. Thankfully this is not what usually happens, but it can, so I see an oncologist regularly and will probably continue to do so for the rest of my life. My life is different now, and nearly two years later I acknowledge that I'm better because of that experience. At the very least, I appreciate being alive every single day in a way that I could not have fathomed before. I am one of the lucky ones who is still here to help spread awareness and hopefully garner more funds to work towards better survival rates (they're still pretty dismal, though improving). And, maybe someday, an actual cure or prevention strategy. Thank you for reading, and I wish you peace and health, today and every day.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Bathroom Google Searching

While I was experiencing intestinal distress/revolt, I decided to Google Search myself. It's not something I do regularly, but when stuck in the bathroom for longer than I'd have liked it seemed as good an idea as any. I came across the expected hits: where I work, library board stuff, social media sites, and this article about my cancer debacle. I unexpectedly stumbled upon this article about the death of Corin Sparks (not me!), a young man who was stabbed to death by his brother with a 2-foot Samurai Sword IN FRONT OF THEIR MOTHER. I found this absolutely crazy, and it was a not-so-gentle reminder of how lucky I am. I was not stabbed in the heart by my brother with a Samurai sword during my teenage years.

Honestly, no, I didn't really think about this in a "wow, this could happen to anyone" sense, but I was just amazed that it happened at all.

Why does this belong here on my Things Left Out blog? My answer, "Why not?" I am one letter away from sharing a name with Corin Sparks, and without that coincidence I'd never have known about this death. I immediately felt the need to write down my experience because of how weird it was, so here you go. It's now a couple of days later and I typed what I quickly penned into my notebook, as I still find it an oddity that needs to be shared.

My challenge to you: Google search yourself and see what you get. Anything weirder? I'd love to hear about it!

Saturday, August 13, 2016

In which I quote Wayne's World... a lot.

Confession: I love Wayne's World. In fact, I have dressed as Garth on more than one occasion (usually only for costume parties ;) ). Bohemian Rhapsody came on in the car today when I was in AURORA, home of Wayne Campbell and Garth Algar. It was perfectly poetic and it prompted me to watch the video clip on YouTube, embedded here for your viewing pleasure:

If you took the time to watch the clip, note that the White Castle is the actual White Castle in Aurora, a mere minutes away from my house! 

So, what's the point of me sharing my love for a very 90's movie born out of SNL sketch comedy? First, so you get to know me a bit better. I told you what you see is what you get, and if you didn't know I can pull off a pretty good Garth, you don't really know me. Second, to remind anyone reading this about how AWESOME Wayne's World is. Lastly, to paint a picture of the comfort in the familiar as well as the comfort in the memory of a simpler time in my life.

If the preceding paragraphs don't serve as evidence for my love for Wayne's World (and Wayne's World 2), maybe this anecdote will: I quoted Wayne's World 2 in my last job interview. (Spoiler alert: I got the job, so either the appreciated my sense of humor or they had no idea I was quoting the movie.) The choice quote: "If you book them, they will come." The spirit of Jim Morrison wisely tells Wayne and Garth that's how they will get bands to play their Aurora concert, and (Spoiler alert again!) it works. Aerosmith shows up. AEROSMITH! I didn't just blurt out this quote randomly, it actually answered the interview question perfectly. It's pretty good life advice: if you set an expectation, it is much more likely to be met than if you didn't bother to set the expectation at all. At the very least, it was a better quote than Wayne's "It will be mine. Oh yes, it will be mine." That probably wouldn't go over very well in a job interview, nor would "We're not worthy! We're scum! We suck!" help you get a job, though it did help Wayne and Garth get away from the very awesome Alice Cooper. 

There is both comfort in the familiar and comfort in remembering simpler times. I watched Wayne's World a countless number of times in my youth, long before I had a close encounter with my mortality. Remembering the movie brings back a little piece of the unadulterated me, as does listening to Q101, and memories of an MTV with TRL and music videos and Loveline. I am so grateful to be growing older (better than the alternative!), but I am also grateful for the glimpses of the young me, the person with unlimited potential and endless possibilities, the person with a whole pancreas who had no idea what it felt like to be really, really unwell. I'd venture to guess everyone has their own version of "the good ol' days," though I have no desire to return to them. Garth doesn't need to tell me to "Live in the now!" because I make a point to do just that. Additionally, adulthood does have its perks, such as buying fancy guitars, playing hockey in the street, and headbanging to "Bohemian Rhapsody" in a car that is not owned by your parents. 

Party on! 

Friday, August 12, 2016

Why not me, revisited

Prior to the fall of 2014, I did not feel connected to Steve Jobs in any real way, besides having owned an iPod and an Apple computer or two. The doctor who was given the task of telling me about my pancreatic tumor introduced the diagnosis by telling me what it "probably" wasn't- pancreatic adenocarcinoma. So I said, "Oh, like Patrick Swayze?" Him: "Yes." Me: "Or Steve Jobs?" Him: "Wait just a minute there. Steve Jobs had a neuroendocrine tumor, which can be curable. We think you might have a neuroendocrine tumor." I absorbed the gravity of the potential diagnosis from my knowledge of Steve Jobs, a very public figure who died of pancreatic cancer relatively recently (he died in 2011). While I did not end up having the "Steve Jobs" variety of pancreatic cancer, I did have a Whipple surgery like he did. I did have "a" variety of pancreatic cancer like he did, though it wasn't the same histology (type of tumor tissue). So, I feel a bit of a connection to Steve Jobs.

I came across this Steve jobs quote the other day as I was creating the image for the Julian of Norwich quote ("All shall be well..."): "The people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do."  I was instantly attracted to the quote itself, and then I saw to whom the quote is attributed. Steve Jobs. I had to save this one for later! So I created another image with his fantastic message. 

As I tried to make peace with my trial of an illness, I didn't wonder "Why me?" I decided to question, "Why not me?" Or I tried to, at least. "Why me?" is a pity-seeking question in my opinion. To me, "Why not me?" means that I am like everyone else. I am not more or less deserving of good or bad things. So, I got a tumor. "Why me?" is not a really productive thought to ponder, but "Why not me?" grounded me to the idea that the random and bad things that can happen are just that: random. Maybe you already see how this world view of mine relates to people being crazy enough to believe they can change the world, maybe you don't. Simply: People do make a difference. Why can't I be one of those people? I can! Why not me? Why can't you be one of those people? You can! Why not you? 

Thursday, August 11, 2016

All will be well

I'm not a regular churchgoer, though I sometimes attend a local Universal Unitarian Sunday service. I heard these wise words during the "For All Ages" part of a poetry-themed service, though the speaker changed "shall" to "will," probably to make the saying more understandable to the younger folk. The speaker said this was a poem he kept in "his back pocket." While it's not a poem, exactly, it's a good saying to have at the ready. It's a really eloquent (and poetic) way of saying, "It's going to be alright!" I now prefer Julian of Norwich's positive spin to my oft-used, back-pocketed saying, "This too shall pass." 

During my two-week-stay at the surgical telemetry suite, I communicated with my family though text and video chats. I distinctly remember typing to my husband, "This will be behind us soon." All shall be well. 13 of the 14 days I was in the hospital, I held on to the hope that this experience was but a blip, that I would soon return to normal. All would be well. On that one day, Day 10 as it were, I had a Terrible, Horrible, No Good,Very Bad Day. I blogged a bit about that day back in October 2015. On that dark day, I lost sight of the larger picture. I did not reassure myself that all shall be well. I didn't know that saying yet, so maybe that was the problem. 

How do you get through your dark days? 

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Leave your mark: part 2

"The thing I realize is that it's not what you take, it's what you leave." 
-Violet, via Jennifer Niven, author of All the Bright Places

It's no secret that I love books. I am a librarian, after all. The past seven years I have been working with elementary school-aged children, and I have loved (almost) every minute of it. However, the time has come for me to move on to something different. I am moving to our district's high school, so my student body and thus reading material has had to change considerably. There's a lot I have to catch up on. The quote above is from Jennifer Niven's book All the Bright Places. If you read this post about making your mark, you know my approach to this goal has changed since my illness. Making my mark is about what I leave, not in the "when I leave this world" sense, but in the "what can I do today to make the world a better place" sense. 

For me, this quest to make the world a better place includes my quest to become a better human. Professionally, I constantly work on improving my craft and bettering my students' educational experiences. Personally, I strive for self improvement. As my career progresses in time and in responsibility/success, the line between my professional self and my personal self not only becomes blurred, but it is starting to disappear entirely. In other words, I present myself honestly and consistently across the different "categories" of my life. What you see is what you get. My colleagues, fellow library trustees, social club friends, etc., all know the same person that my family knows: ME. 

I'm pretty sure I was the same way before surgery, but I was perhaps a bit more guarded than I am now. I'm honestly not sure. I'm the now me, as I ever am (as we all ever are). As time moves me further away from my illness, surgery, and recovery, I reflect less on how this experience has changed me, which is evident by my lack of writing on this particular blog. I spend more time reflecting on how to do better, how to be a better human. If you'll stay with me, I'll continue to write about my quest. Not as a documentation of the things that I do that I perceive as "good," but as a challenge to myself to "put my money where my mouth is." This week I've been all about reading inspirational quotes, so look forward to that- hardy har har. 

And now, one of the most confusing quotes from one of my favorite pieces, Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland: 

"'Be what you would seem to be’–or if you’d like it put more simply–‘Never imagine yourself not to be otherwise than what it might appear to others that what you were or might have been was not otherwise than what you had been would have appeared to them to be otherwise.'" -The Duchess

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Being Alive

This past weekend, my husband posed the question, "Aren't you glad we had kids?" Of course! That's an easy question. I'm going to go out on a limb and suggest most parents are mostly happy about their status as parents. In turn, I asked, "Aren't you glad I'm not dead?" A ridiculous exchange, I know, but asking ridiculous questions with (hopefully) obvious answers is part of the fun of (our) marriage. 

Prior to my giant tumor/illness/surgery debacle, "Aren't you glad I'm not dead?" was not part of our repertoire. Again, it should go without saying that people are mostly happy about Being Alive. The status of Being Alive, however, became more important to us after we had to look pancreatic cancer in the face (in the pancreas?). In the diagnosis-limbo month, nearly everything I read was doom-and-gloom. I remember thinking that I might have a life expectancy of an additional six months, according to common pancreatic cancer statistics. Even so, I was hopeful that I did not have adenocarcinoma and had a neuroendocrine tumor instead (possibly benign!). I remember saying to Chris, "Even if it is neuroendocrine cancer, there's a good chance it'll take 5 to 10 years to kill me." I got daggers for eyes in response. The initial and post-surgical biopsies proved much more optimistic, my tumor was exceedingly rare (a good thing in this situation), surgically curable, and unlikely to return. 

I'm about 18 months post-surgery at this point, and super happy about Being Alive. My quality of life is fantastic. Most people who have had the Whipple procedure report similar quality of life to the un-Whippled, according to this study

I feel great, though undergoing a pancreaticoduodenectomy (I spelled that right on the first try!), a.k.a. Whipple procedure, has not been without consequences, physical and otherwise. I see an oncologist quarterly for an exam and blood tests, and I have a follow-up CT annually (indefinitely). While not exactly convenient, it's helpful. My surgical changes have rendered me anemic, but the answer is iron pills (no big deal!). My surgical changes have messed a bit with my digestion and given me chronic gastritis (a slightly bigger deal but still manageable). My surgical changes are what helped me remain the the "Being Alive" category, so I take the negative consequences with a pretty positive attitude, hence the "fantastic" quality of life statement. 

I recognize how trite it is to state one's appreciation for Being Alive only after a brush with not Being Alive, but it is my truth. Thanks for reading.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Leave your mark (part 1)

Before I found out I had a giant pancreatic tumor, I didn't give too much thought about the impact I was having on the world beyond the stereotypical. I teach, and in my experience us educators really do want to leave our mark on our students. After ten years in the profession, I have had some evidence that I am at least memorable to some students. I live near where I teach, so I have had former students (now adults!) approach me and say, "you taught at Jefferson, right? Mrs. Sparks?" A former student of mine is in school to be a paramedic. I taught him sixth-grade science. That has to count for some amount of impact, right? To be totally honest, I am just so excited to see my old students finding their way in life and finding success. And it's more than a little heartwarming to find out they remember me. I'm self-confident enough to believe they remember me for positive reasons (or I'm just delusional).

I don't believe there's some sort of cosmic reason behind me getting a pancreatic tumor. I just got unlucky. Some people may find comfort in believing bad things happen for a reason, and that's fine by me, but that is not what I believe. No one deserves hardship. The unlucky bit is easier for me to swallow than the possibility I was "gifted" this tumor for a greater purpose. However, in the past year and a half since diagnosis, I have been trying to create my own purpose. I have been trying to leave my mark, because I am acutely aware that making the most of the "now" is so important, as you never know what tomorrow will bring. 

The tumor I had is called the Solid Pseudopapillary Neoplasm (SPN). It's crazy rare. We have a Facebook group, and there are tens of us. Let that sink in... TENS. Less than 100 members, some members are family members of the SPN patients, and this group is INTERNATIONAL. Now I know there are more than 100 people who have had this tumor, but even the largest studies have fewer than 1000 subjects SINCE 1959. To put this in perspective, about 50,000 people are diagnosed with Pancreatic Adenocarcinoma (what people usually mean when they refer to pancreatic cancer) in the United States EACH YEAR. In sum, I'm pretty darn unlucky to get this tumor, but of the pancreatic tumors to get, I'm quite lucky as it's nearly always cured by surgery (which I underwent in January 2015). Every now and then another member gets added to our little group, and us more seasoned members are there to provide support and answer questions. After all, this tumor is SO RARE, the Internet is really the only place to turn facing this diagnosis. A few weeks back I Skyped with a woman from New Zealand who was recently diagnosed. We talked for under an hour, but it was such a powerful experience. I had never actually spoken face-to-face with someone with the same diagnosis. We compared symptoms. She asked questions about surgery and recovery. I think I provided some reassurance. I feel great, and I made sure she knew that. It took about a year for me to be able to say "I feel great," but I really do. 

So my community of SPN sufferers is a mere "tens" of people internationally, but I have been able to reach out to a few of these women (about 90% of people who are diagnosed with SPN are women). This is one way I'm leaving my mark, making lemonade from those life-handed lemons, if you will. It's one way I cope, it's one way I give back, it's one way I try to make sense of this crazy-rare-tumor nonsense. Participating in this extremely small community is just one way I'm attempting to make my mark. In the past year, I've come to a more concrete realization of what really matters to me and the potential impact of my actions. I will title an upcoming piece "part 2," as I have more to say. Thank you for reading.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

May the 14th be with you

Were it not for the Google Calendar app, there's a fair chance I'd forget to do something important, like pick up my kids from daycare or give my dog her heart worm preventative (hardy, har, har). That, or I'd have to write stuff down on an actual paper calendar (who does that?!). I know that works for some of you, but paper calendars don't fit in your pocket or sync with your husband's Google Calendar. 

I've had plans for today for months. What plans, you ask? Plans with my BFF to see the Downton Abbey exhibit at the Driehaus Museum in Chicago, of course. Duh. Once tickets were purchased, on the calendar it went so I wouldn't forget and so my husband knew he had to keep track of our kids that day (today).

A few weeks later, I realized that May 14th was also the fundraising walk for Living Well Cancer Resource Center, but no big deal, as it was a morning activity and our tickets were for mid-afternoon. I had made up my mind ages (months, I'm being overly hyperbolic) ago to participate in the walk so not walking wasn't an option. 

Then, after that, we received a birthday party invite to celebrate the first birthday of our dear friends' son. I couldn't swing that, too, but on the calendar it went and Chris took the boys.

So, here's a recap. Today was busy, and I need an electronic calendar. From here, I will tell the story of my day through phone pics.

Picture #1: 

Me and my mother-in-law Mary at the Living Well Bridge Walk
My day started bright and early at the forest preserve (pictured above). My kind mother-in-law picked up my ORANGE t-shirt (it means "Cancer Survivor," in contrast to the blue-shirted people (walkers). We walked with the first round of participants, the honored survivors. I can't say I've experienced anything like that. People cheered as we walked under the balloon entryway with Rachel Platten's "Stand By You" loudly playing to open the 5K. Well, I've never had an opinion about that song, but weren't it for the distraction of talking to Mary and sheer determination, I probably would have burst into tears. Choice lyrics: "Even if we're breaking down, we can find a way to break through. Even if we can't find heaven, I'll walk through Hell with you. Love, you're not alone, 'cause I'm gonna stand by you." Yep, I'll never hear that song again and not feel something. Anyway, we walked the 5K, returned to more loud music and cheers, and I was presented a purple annual to add to my garden, to which I quietly said to Mary, "It's purple! How did they know!" (Purple is the color of the pancreatic cancer awareness initiative, like pink is for breast cancer.) She laughed her wonderful, genuine laugh, and we left the event. I will definitely do that again, though it was weird to be a "guest of honor" of sorts. 

Picture #2:

Me and my BFF Sandi in front of a bunch of cheese at Eataly
The Downton Abbey Exhibit was great fun. The Driehaus Museum is located in a gorgeous turn-of-the-century house (19th to 20th). The exhibit focused on the costumes of Downton, but because of the style of the house/museum, it was difficult to distinguish what was part of the exhibit and what was "just" part of the house. Because of that lack of distinction, I think Driehaus was the perfect Chicago location for the Downton exhibit. We followed up the museum visit with gelato and coffee at Eataly, an overwhelming Italian market of sorts. I left full of caffeine and sugar with a bottle of Limoncello in hand (unopened, of course). Sometimes I need time with my BFF, and what a fantastic backdrop we had today. 

Picture #3: 
Chicken Shawarma from Naf Naf Grill
I've noticed a big part of what I'll call the survivorship culture is returning to normal, or a "new normal" for some. This is absolutely the case for me, but I had a Deep Thought on this the other day (Saturday Night Live reference intended). Some people fight with all they have to make a full physical comeback from the devastation of an accident or illness. I definitely had to fight that fight, but it wasn't a drastic or dramatic fight for me. I had regain stamina and strength over time, and I did, just by living life. More specifically, my then-two-year-olds required it of me. What was harder was eating "real" food in normally-sized portions, something I took for granted prior to my surgery. About one-third of my stomach was removed during the surgery; it's just part of the traditional Whipple procedure. Eating was a source of pain and stress for me for months (I'll spare you the details). There were times I wondered if I'd ever feel good again, if I'd ever be able to eat something other than the BRAT diet and protein shakes again. I now have my answer. YES. I fought that fight hard, and stretched my stomach back out to its normal size (hardy, har, har). So I stopped at Naf Naf Grill on my way home from my afternoon excursion (pictured above). And I ate every last bite. It was amazing, and proof that I'm living my life, in many ways better than before. I appreciate each day, corny as it sounds, but it's true.

Picture #4:
Limoncello. Need I say more?
Here's more proof that I'm back to living my life. Cheers. 

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Am I a cancer survivor?

This coming weekend I will be participating in the Bridge Walk for the Living Well Cancer Resource Center in Geneva, IL. I have been intending to walk in this fundraiser since I learned about it last summer, but I have been dragging my heels on actually registering. I have visited the registration page numerous times. It asks for relevant information such as name, e-mail address, etc. It also asks what type of participant you are: adult, child, student, or cancer survivor. Clearly, I am not a child (or a student), but the question I have grappled with for the past year and a half (give or take) stalls my progress to the next page of registration. 

The type of tumor I had is considered a malignancy (cancer), but in the absence of metastases (spread), it behaved in quite the benign (not cancerous) fashion. Surgically curable, or so they say. So far, so good. Does this give me the right to consider myself a cancer survivor? I doubt anyone would call me out on it if I checked this box. "No, Cori, you only had a neoplasm, not a carcinoma." According to the title of this article about my experience, I am a pancreatic cancer survivor: "Attentiveness saved mom's life from pancreatic cancer." Wow. That's still hard to read. 

The aforementioned evidence suggests I should check the "cancer survivor" box. But still I hesitate. Sure, I had an 11 hour surgery and a 2 week hospital stay. Sure, I had a giant tumor. Sure, I see an oncologist. But I don't feel like a cancer survivor. I didn't undergo chemotherapy. The surgery produced "clear margins" and revealed no lymph node involvement. I did not have adenocarcinoma (the Patrick Swayze pancreatic cancer). I did not have a neuroendocrine cancer (the Steve Jobs pancreatic cancer). I had an especially rare tumor with an "excellent prognosis." I got super unlucky (when I say especially rare, I mean super especially rare). But at the same time, I got super lucky. I got the "good" pancreatic tumor. The one that rarely returns, the one that very rarely causes death. My surgery was awful, there is no way to sugarcoat that, but the bulk of my medical journey began and ended during my hospital stay. The lingering effects of my illness seem to have more to do with the surgery itself and very little to do with having had a large pancreatic tumor. I'll own up to being a survivor, but aren't we all? Add "cancer" to the description of survivor, and suddenly I'm not sure I agree. 

I am sure I will be participating in the walk this Saturday. If you're local, I'd love it if you'd join me: Register here. If you don't want to walk but you'd like to donate: Donate here. If you'd like to buy some fabulous Origami Owl jewelry and have 10% of your purchase price donated to Living Well: Shop here. Your well wishes and happy thoughts are also appreciated. Thank you for reading! 

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Like riding a bike

Turns out rollerskating is like riding a bike. Once your body learns how to balance itself while perched atop a set of wheels, it doesn't forget. Last night I took my twins rollerskating for the first time, which means I took myself rollerskating for the first time in over a decade. I laced up the borrowed (probably smelly) brown skates with orange wheels while sitting on a wooden bench old enough to have supported my grandparents as they laced up their brown skates with orange wheels half a century ago. I stood up and awkwardly stepped across the patterned carpet (whilst encouraging my three-year-olds to do the same) to the rink, a dimly lit ellipse with a carpeted wall that is probably much the same as any other roller rink in the Midwest, possibly in America. Holding on to the wall and (and my three-year-old), I rolled out onto the rink and was instantly reminded of my many revolutions around the hanging disco balls that decorated every rink of my childhood. The memories from my childhood of the 1980s and 1990s were only intensified as Michael Jackson was played over the sound system, and I was very nearly transported back time-machine-style when C & C Music Factory's "Everybody Dance Now" boomed through the speakers. The memory of movement is curious, it took merely seconds for my body to remember to lean forward and roll forward. Good thing, because a three-year-old on skates requires a bit of support. I remember learning to skate; my childhood best friend Lisa's mom kindly held my hand as I learned to slightly lean forward so as to not fall over. I never became a great skater (I still can't go backwards), but I became a decent enough skater to stay upright, even while my children tested their balance and attempted to learn to stay upright themselves. It would be remiss if I did not mention the last time I went rollerskating. It was about ten years ago for a friend's birthday. Most of us were reliving our junior high days, with the exception of one of my friends, I'll call him V, who had never been rollerskating before. Since I had not had drinks with dinner (and could skate upright), V, who has about 50 pounds on me, leaned on me as we circled the rink along the carpeted wall. It was hilarious at the time, but what I didn't realize is that hilarity and memory of movement would be recalled while teaching my 40-pound kids to roller skate. A drunk 25-year-old is a lot like a 3-year-old on roller skates. 

I find myself thinking about my surgery at odd times, like while rollerskating. Not about the actual procedure, but the fact that I am here and well. I feel great; I am tumor free. It is a privilege to be part of the childhood memories my children are acquiring, and for that I am infinitely thankful. 

Monday, April 4, 2016

Paging doctor google

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Information was available everywhere, yet information was available everywhere. You have a need for information? It's likely a click a way. But how to appropriately access and use such information, the lament of librarians everywhere (including myself). 

I should have known better. To be fair, when I started feeling sick I did go to the doctor. He diagnosed me with GERD (acid reflux), prescribed Prilosec, and sent me on my way with an order to return for a CT scan if I didn't improve rapidly (this guy knew something was up). I took the medication as directed and started feeling better, though still not great. Acid reflux is extremely common, so I attempted to explain away my symptoms through Googling "GERD" and combing through the various ways GERD manifests itself depending on the sufferer. Ultimately, I found what I was seeking, justification that I was just suffering regular acid reflux coupled with the stress of working and parenting young children. I also found that my symptoms could be explained by a multitude of other more serious conditions, including pancreatic cancer. As the weeks passed, I continued to consult Dr. Google. As the weeks passed, I kept seeing the words "pancreatic cancer" as part of my search results. I told myself I was crazy, that there was no way I could have pancreatic cancer. I wasn't jaundiced and I was only 33 years old. A couple of months after my initial doctor's visit, I had the CT scan that was originally recommended. Within an hour of receiving the CT scan, I was telephoned and notified of "pancreatic changes" and that it was "unlikely to be pancreatic cancer." The nurse who delivered the news had no other information to share, and it was evening time, so my questions would have to wait until the next day. So what did I do? I asked Dr. Google. Let me tell you that if you use the search terms: "pancreatic changes," you don't come up with anything promising. 

If you've been reading or you know me IRL (in real life), you know that my story has a happy ending. I'm alright. I didn't have pancreatic adenocarcinoma. However, to accurately portray my story, I need to share my obsession with seeking information about my illness. It began with the seemingly benign symptom of heartburn, continued throughout diagnosis, and still continued throughout my recovery, until I sought medical help for this obsession. I thought that if I just knew a little more, found the right piece of information, I'd just feel better. I'd somehow know that this disease was not going to return, or if it did, I'd somehow be more prepared. I found the right counselor at a Cancer Resource Center, who helped me realize that while it is my job to advocate for myself, I should leave the diagnosis to the doctors. I am not a doctor, and no amount of Google searching is going to give me an M.D. That's why I have a general practitioner, a gastroenterologist, and an oncologist (among others). Google cannot replace those experts. 

My point? Mostly that having information does not an expert make. I have read dozens of peer-reviewed articles (read: reputable/valid/scientific/etc.) on my illness, but it will not change any potential outcome, nor will it make me a doctor. If you aren't feeling so hot, seek medical help, as tempting as Dr. Google might be. My other point? It's OK to admit you aren't coping well. I wasn't coping well, spending hours on end reading about pancreases and crying, no, sobbing, at the thought that my pancreas might be the end of me, even months after the tumor was kicked out. I have kicked my Google habit, at least when it comes to diagnosing what ails me or my family. I still use Google to answer questions, find lesson plans, shop, and end arguments of a trivial nature. I know madness lies in the never-ending search for the final word on my illness. I'll never find that last bit of information that makes me feel better, that assures me my tumor will never return. I don't know that, and neither does Google. Instead, I have redirected my energy and focus to simply living and enjoying this life, and leaving Google to answer only the answerable questions. 

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

No, I'm not having more kids

I was out to lunch with my twin boys the other day and an older gentleman commented, "Two Boys! Mighty! It's about time you gave them a sister!" To which I laughed and said, "Nah, they're enough." If he had stopped at that, I probably would have forgotten all about his comment, as I find people are generally well-meaning when they try to engage you in conversation. I'm a mom of twins, and I've heard the seemingly standard "social script" of encountering a mom of twins over and over again, from, "Are they twins?" (fair question), to "Do twins run in your family?" (yes, but that's not how I got them), to "Are they natural?" (this question, thankfully, only gets asked once in a blue moon). But he broke this social script when gave his opinion (well-meaning as he was) about the number of children I should have. He went on: "Children are a gift from God and if you were My Wife..." Fill in the blank however you'd like, but he said something a tad inappropriate and at that point I started tuning him out. I have a general rule about trying to make people feel comfortable IRL (in real life- this rule oddly doesn't apply on the Internet), so I handled this well on the outside even though I was like "SHUT UP, SHUT UP, SHUT UP" on the inside (and thankfully my kids are too young to really understand what he said). Thankfully, his lunchtime companion arrived and he turned his attention to his friend instead of telling me to reproduce.

Before discovering I had a giant tumor growing in my pancreas I might have told you I wanted to have another child. Might. It depended heavily on that particular day: if I had slept the night before, if my children were being particularly cute, if there were winds in the east, mist coming in, etc. It wasn't a decision my husband and I had definitively arrived at, as the twins were just shy of two and had tired us out over the past year (ages 12-24 months with twins is HARD). But there were days we would contemplate the idea of another and try to convince ourselves that a singleton baby had to be easier- didn't it? About the time my twins turned 21 months, I started feeling sick. By the 24 month mark, I knew I had something severely wrong in my body. So the more children question was put on hold for diagnosis and medical treatment, which happened to be a solid pseudopapillary neoplasm (SPN) that was evicted by a Whipple procedure.

Fast forward a year and some, and you have me sitting in McDonald's with a perfect stranger telling me to be fruitful and multiply. I didn't need to give this stranger my medical history, but I thought perhaps I should write about his socially inappropriate behavior. Not to tell you to stop making comments about a person's family planning (that should go without saying), but to reflect on how my tumor changed my plans, specifically in regards to the more children question.

My tumor is exceedingly rare, but there are a few things that medical literature seems to agree on. Most people who are unlucky enough to be diagnosed with SPN are female (about 90%) and young (during the reproductive years, so are quite possibly related to female hormones). Though I have been told by my oncologist and my obstetrician that the risk of reoccurance shouldn't interfere with my potential desire to grow my family, I'm not sure I could handle being pregnant and wondering if this will somehow restart the any lingering tumor cells. There shouldn't be any lingering tumor cells, but I'd be lying if I said that hasn't crossed my mind. Additionally, my body was put through the wringer with the Whipple surgery. I lost some essential pieces of my digestive system and malabsorption of nutrients is a real risk for me presently and in the future. Who knew a duodenum was so important? There are a small amount of people who have gone on to have healthy pregnancies and babies after a Whipple surgery, but as of right now, I don't plan on being one of them. 

Being a parent of two boys is an incredible experience. I am sure that joy (and that pain-in-the-ass-ness of having children) would only grow with more children, but we're fine with being a family of four. We are a two-on-two team, man-to-man defense, if you will. We have even gone on an airplane and haven't been totally embarrassed. I share this as MY current stance on the subject, and I in no way want to impose my opinion on anyone else's reproductive plans. You don't want to have kids? Great! You want to have 6? Okay! 

Life is what happens when you're busy making other plans. It's a life for which I am very thankful. If someday I get that maternal urge, I might change my mind (but don't count on it), but in all likelihood, I'll probably just get a puppy. 

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Symbolism/The year of the owl

Thanks to fabulous English teachers, my high school American Literature teacher in particular, I have a pretty firm grasp on the purpose of symbolism in literature. I read The Scarlet Letter my junior year of high school, and though I haven´t picked up the book since (nearly 20 years ago- eek!), I still have vivid memories of the seemingly endless discussions of symbolism that accompanied the reading of the book. I remember the behind-the-teacher's-back discussions with friends about whether or not Hawthorne intended all of that darn symbolism or if we were reading too much into his words (yes, this is really what nerdy kids talk about- Mom, you really shouldn't have worried about me). The Great Gatsby is another American lit read chock-full of symbolism, and upon multiple readings as an adult, I have decided that Fitzgerald intended every last bit of symbolism to be interpreted as such in that Great American Novel. I do not intend to write you a literary analysis of either or any text, however.

Symbols are everywhere, from the obvious heart to the less-obvious infinity symbol, to the even-less obvious semi-colon (not used as a punctuation mark). I recall seeing the semi-colon as a non-punctuation symbol for the first time on social media; some people get semi-colon tattoos as a powerful symbol of hope. 

Several weeks ago I revealed that I stepped outside of who I thought I was (before surgery) and got a tattoo. The design presented itself before I even considered getting a tattoo. I saw a picture of something similar to what is now inked on my right shoulder and I thought, "Wow, that needs to be part of me." Only then did I consider getting a tattoo. If you've been reading, you've seen my partial tattoo reveal. Well, here is the whole darn thing:

Yep, I'm a librarian with a book tattoo. This book really comes to life, no? Those pages are really flying! If you know me IRL (in real life) you probably couldn't come up with a more perfect tattoo for me. If you know me IRL, you've probably already seen this. Note the final bird isn't just a nondescript bird silhouette, it's an owl. This is my nod to my Harry Potter Obsession. The owl is Hedwig. Right about now some of you are chanting "Nerd! Nerd! Nerd!" or wondering why I defaced my right arm like so. Well, yes, I'm a nerd. And I happen to like my tattoo, and I don't really care if you don't! It's easily covered up for job interviews and public photo ops! Not that I really care in either of those situations, either!

So, I have a symbol tattooed to my arm. I love it. Would I have considered this 18 months ago before my illness? I don't know, honestly. That's not me anymore. I can't separate out my illness from who I've become. While it's doubtful I'll ever be thankful for having had a giant pancreatic tumor, I appreciate that I'm here and that I have the freedom to choose at least some of my scars (the tattoo, duh). 

When I see it my tattoo, I really do see it as a work of art. It is the one and only scar that I got to choose. (I have at least 6 from my Whipple.) However, there's this fantastic book with a really awesome raven silhouette on the cover... 

Saturday, March 26, 2016


Here in the Midwest it sleeted huge snowflakes this past week. While we didn't have measurable snowfall, we certainly had some snow. I've lived here my whole life, so March snow is to be expected, April snow isn't surprising, and May snow, while uncommon, does happen. Many regional folk have a love/hate relationship with snow. The first season's snowfall is usually met with delight (as long as it's at least November), a White Christmas is preferred, and by mid-January, shoveling and becomes tiresome. I've never had a really strong opinion about the snow. It is simply really cold solid water. It happens. It's not my favorite to drive in and I definitely prefer 70 degrees and sunny, but I don't routinely long for a different climate.

February 1st, 2015, Chicago was gifted with a blizzard. It was also Super Bowl Sunday. I remember this day vividly. My Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day was behind me. I had already pulled out my own NG tube (for the 2nd time). I still felt like hell, but I wanted desperately to go home. The only visitor I had all day was from my surgeon that snowy morning. By the time the Super Bowl started, blizzard status had been achieved and the surgical telemetry unit on the 7th floor was a very quiet place. I stood at the wall-sized windows of the waiting/visiting area and stared at the seemingly tiny snow-covered cars below in the parking lot of Lutheran General Hospital. The roads were blanketed in snow. Travel would have been difficult at best. My interest in the Super Bowl was close to zero, but to feel some human connection (most people I know were home watching the Super Bowl) I turned the waiting room TV to the game. I was alone in the large room. Being at a hospital during a blizzard is BORING. It's always boring, but when you are able to walk around and eat yogurt and lemon ice, boredom levels shoot through the roof. This was my thirteenth day in the hospital. Eleven of the prior twelve days had been downright miserable, but as I was beginning to feel more human my impatience, loneliness, and boredom grew. 

I did go home two days later, which was amazing. While there were nights shortly after arriving home I felt so terrible and scared I almost wanted to be back in the hospital under the watchful care of nurses, I am grateful everyday to be healthy, free from pain, and at home. 

As the snow fell this past week, I was reminded of my time longingly staring outside at the snow out of the 7th floor hospital window. It so happens I was picking up my children from daycare during the brief snowfall, which is very nearly the opposite of hospital lonesomeness. I am thankful for each new season and even springtime snows, for early in this journey I wasn't sure if my life was going to be cut short by my pancreatic tumor. Over a year has passed since my surgery, and I'm grateful to simply be. I've appreciatively watched my children grow, learn, and change for another year. I marvel at the change of the season and note the significance that I'm still here. I might even say my indifference towards snow has turned to awe, as the significance of yet another season for snow means I'm around to see it. I still prefer 70 and sunny, but I will welcome the snows of winter (and spring!) each new year. 

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Things not written/Karma

I have several half-written blog posts that I have yet to finish. I was talking to a fellow blogger/friend who said that those are the posts that are crap, that aren't worth publication. She's pretty much right. I wrote one scathing paragraph about karma (about how I don't believe in it) that might grace these virtual pages one day, but I also have a draft I entitled "You get what you deserve." Contradictions. To be fair, "You get what you deserve" was not about karma, but still. I can't proclaim that karma is crap and then write about getting what one deserves. 

Oh, what the heck. I'll share my diatribe on karma here, in the likely event I never go back to that piece:

Karma is crap. Think before you mention karma to someone who has greatly suffered. To tell someone they deserve a hardship because of something they have or have not done is an awful thing to say. No one deserves a giant pancreatic tumor. No one deserves cancer. No one deserves to have their life cut short my declining health or a tragic accident. Does the speeding jerk who cut you off deserve to get pulled over? Sure. But call that consequences, don't call it karma. To be clear, no one directly said I deserved a tumor. But to preach "karma" is an insult.

So, that's how I feel about karma. (And that's a conclusion a fifth grader would write. At least I didn't open with a question. "Did you know...")

Now that I've established my feelings on karma and that I don't always finish what I start (ahem, blog posts), what about getting what you deserve? Well, that post was crap. Sometimes you do get what you deserve, but like I said, I attribute that to consequences, not karma. My inner teacher voice is telling me to point out that consequences are both positive and negative. But I also need to point out that in this example, I am attaching consequences to conscious choices. 

Bad stuff happens to people. Period. Do not try to justify a tragedy by thinking it was somehow deserved. You will not convince me that I got my tumor because I "deserved" it,  unless you somehow weave the words "gene mutation" into your explanation, like "The mutated gene thought you deserved a pancreatic tumor." Life handed me lemons (actually, the tumor was more of the size of a single small orange). So, I've made the choice to make lemonade. I'm still working out the recipe for my lemonade, but it somewhat includes writing clichéd metaphors whilst sharing my life experiences. Someday, I hope to reach more people and use my experiences for the greater good, like promoting pancreatic cancer awareness (which hopefully leads to more funding which hopefully leads to medical advances). I will keep trying to make lemonade, as life does not discriminate when it comes to handing out lemons.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Surgical changes: Those who can, teach.

Most people, thankfully, think thoughts that are never said out loud. I can safely admit I'm one of those people who (usually) thinks before I open my mouth. I'd be surprised if you told me you've never encountered someone who seemingly spews their thoughts without putting it through some sort of social filter, asking him/herself "Should I really be saying this?" before orating. "Oh great," you're thinking, "this is about to turn into some sort of political tirade." Nope, I'm not going to go there. I am well aware that this is primary season and I do have political opinions, but this is not my platform for sharing them. Well, I'm about to write about my fierce commitment to public education, so if you consider that political (no, I will not be talking about vouchers or charter schools or taxes), I don't apologize, but feel free to stop reading.

I've already established that I'm not the same person I was pre-illness. To bring new readers up to speed, I recently had major, major surgery to remove a "low grade malignancy" from my pancreas (a large portion of my pancreas got the boot in addition to other digestive organs most of you still house in your bodies). I've dubbed my illness a "sort-of cancer," as it wasn't quite benign, though in the world of pancreatic cancers I got the super rare, relatively "good" and curable variety. My one year follow-up CT scan revealed "surgical changes" (duh), and nothing more tumor-related. 

I remember 48-hour-post-discharge appointment with my surgeon like it was last week, never mind that it was actually 13 months ago. My surgeon, the wonderful, kind, talented, and handsome Dr. Fabio Sbrana told me and my husband that the day he ordered my discharge papers (a Tuesday), he had told the nurses that I'd be back, meaning, he didn't think I was physically ready to go home and would be re-admitted, but he let me go because I was BEGGING to end my two-week stay at hotel "Surgical Telemetry Unit." But, that Thursday I walked, upright, mind you, into his office probably looking like hell, but looking ten times better than I had in the hospital. My determination to be home and healing kept me at home and healing. At this follow-up visit my main questions were about bile (if you're curious, ask, but I will spare the non-curious the green details), what I could eat, and my physical restrictions. I could eat pretty much anything I could stomach, and I didn't have any physical restrictions. Yes, I could pick up my giant two-year-olds (hallelujah!) a mere 16 days after my 11-hour-surgery, and, in fact, I could go running! I laughed, as I'm not a runner, but thanks, doc, for those "surgical changes" that turned me into a runner. Joking aside, his point was I couldn't do any physical damage to my surgery with physical activity, and in order to heal, I needed physical activity. What wasn't mentioned were the emotional repercussions of undergoing such a traumatic event. I've mentioned my resulting depression and anxiety, but that's well-managed. I've explored how this experience has allowed me to admit my like of Phil Collins, Lorna Doones, and tattoos. Those who see me everyday (who knew me before my illness) have noticed yet another change, the weakening of my "filter." I'll joke and say Dr. Sbrana removed my social filter along with half my pancreas (and somehow made me a runner), but this change is all emotional resulting from the physical.

When I publicly admitted I got a tattoo (gasp!), I assured my reader that this change came about, in part, because I don't really care what you think of me anymore. While the weakening of my filter is related, it's not because I don't care about offending others, it's because there are things I DO care so much about that I speak up much more often than I used to. 

If you know me IRL (in real life) you know that I've been a public school teacher for the past 10 years. You might also know that my great-grandparents were CPS (Chicago Public School) Teachers in the 1930s through the 1960s. Several of my aunts and uncles are teachers. My sister-in-law is a teacher. I have firefighter relatives, my father helps run a large, successful park district, my grandfather retired from military, and I'm married to a public defender. Public service is kind of a family thing. 

I work in a struggling school district (as defined by the great state of Illinois), but I'm a proud supporter of my school district. We don't suck, really. We're not unsafe, really. We have some star educators, really. The wider I cast my social net, I've realized that some people think poorly of my school district for reasons beyond our struggling test scores (I won't even go there...). Admittedly, the community which houses my school district is a very diverse place, racially, socially, and economically, but I consider this an asset rather than a hindrance. Most of my coworkers have been in social situations where someone bashes our school district, sometimes unknowingly an employee is in his/her midst, but sometimes knowingly. My first reaction when this happens is to speak up. I don't teach where I teach because I can't get a job in a "better" school district. I don't live where I live (I live in district, people!) because I can't afford to live elsewhere. I believe in what I do, and I believe in where I do it. I go to work every day as a small attempt to better the lives of children through education, my small contribution to this life. I bring my own children to daycare rather than stay at home with them because I really want to make their world a better place, and for me that means teaching and defending public education and public school students by way of example. (Not to mention they drive me nuts. I say that with love, of course.) 

Like all teachers, I'm not a fan of the expression, "Those who can't, teach." This is a horrible, horrible thing to say about people who spend their minutes, hours, days, weeks, months (even the summer ones!), and years teaching our children. I teach because I can, and I teach because I want to. I teach for my kids, even though they aren't in school yet. I don't apologize for my increasing willingness to speak up for public education. My surgeon told me I can now run, but I have yet to do so. Though he didn't prepare me for the emotional changes after surgery, this conviction to continue to do what I do (teach!) and talk about it (and defend, with evidence, when necessary) is a welcome change. After all, these guys are pretty worth my efforts (aren't they cute?).

Monday, February 22, 2016

I don't know who you are anymore (Part 2)

Quick recap of my last blog post: I'm 34 and finally willing to admit that I like Phil Collins. Also, I got a tattoo, something I wouldn't have considered for my pre-whippled self. In writing about these admissions I also mentioned my husband, Chris, more than I had before. When I told him I was writing a blog (and that I like Johnny Cash's rendition of the NIN song "Hurt'"), he responding, half jokingly, "I don't know who you are anymore!" He wasn't exactly comfortable with my public therapy sessions (a.k.a. writing about my feelings), but said he didn't want to stop me from doing something I wanted to do. I told him I would keep him out of my writing, and for the most part I have, but the story I'm about to tell requires Chris as a key character.

Astonishingly, Chris does not read my blog. If he were the one writing a blog I'd be all over it, stalking the url for new posts and urging him to write more. Writing about oneself used to be reserved for diaries, which were kept hidden away under the mattress or a loose floorboard. But, now, personal blogs have taken what was once private and turned it into permanently public publications. I'd love it if Chris poured his inner thoughts onto the blogosphere. Alas, he has not, and I will continue my astonishment of his avoidance of "Things Left Out." 

I insisted upon reading him my last blog entry, as I wanted him to read it, but I didn't want him to read it whilst driving. So I read it to him as we drove home from a family party, at which a family member gave me a thoughtful and encouraging compliment about my writing (thanks, G!). Chris's first response to my public declaration of becoming a (slightly) different person: "You forgot the Lorna Dunes!" He was right. I forgot the Lorna Dunes. Lorna Dunes are delicious yellow-packaged butter cookies that hospitals seem to have in abundance to hand out after you've fasted for whatever reason, or when you're pregnant and have been asked to wait longer than anticipated and you get a little hungry. How is this relevant, you ask? Well, I have no memory of this event (thanks, anesthesia), but I hazily awoke from my endoscopic ultrasound and biopsy on January 9, 2015 (11 days before my Whipple surgery), and was given a small yellow package of Lorna Dunes. I apparently said, "Ooh, Lorna Dunes. I LOVE Lorna Dunes!" Chris later expressed his astonishment that I even knew what a Lorna Dune was, as he had never heard of them until that day, hence, "I don't know who you are anymore!" So, to him, my last piece of writing had a glaringly obvious omission: the Lorna Dunes.

Whenever Lorna Dunes come up between us, we also rehash the events of that day. That day was truly one of the hardest days of the whole journey, for both of us. It was the first day I saw Chris truly scared about my diagnosis, until then he chose to believe all of the doctors who said that everything would probably be okay. The doctor who performed the biopsy, Dr. Ken Chi, had previously instilled the most hope that I might have something easier to deal with, such as a benign cyst that could be treated with steroids. After my biopsy, I sat in the recovery room with the Lorna Dunes on my lap, and when I was awake enough Dr. Chi came to talk to us along with the nurse who helped with the procedure. Until that day, I had never truly seen a doctor deliver bad news to a patient. That patient was me, so I really felt the weight of the experience. He spoke in a low, nearly apologetic tone, telling us that I definitely had a tumor. You could see in his face and hear it in his voice that this was the "bad news" delivery. Even the nurse standing next to him looked as if he was witnessing something awful. I asked, "but it hasn't spread, right?" He replied, "there is no evidence of spread." I knew the omission from that statement. What he really was saying, "While this is no evidence of spread, we won't really know until we get in there for surgery." He gave me the "differential diagnoses," or, the different things the tumor might be. His best guess was the pseudopapillary tumor (he was right, thankfully), after that, a neuroendocrine tumor (still treatable), but after that, adenocarcinoma. A doctor finally said the worst-case scenario out loud. Adenocarcinoma. That's the pancreatic cancer that kills most patients within six months of diagnosis. Chris and I left feeling crushed, really. The next five days were sooooo long waiting for the biopsy results. The biopsy results were best-case scenario, thankfully. I barely noticed that the doctor told me I had a "low grade malignancy" in my pancreas. I was going to be okay. 

That experience changed me. I had been diagnosed with a miscarriage several years prior, and the doctors who saw me for that treated me with compassion and sympathy, but their delivery of that bad news barely holds a candle to the delivery of bad news I was given on January 9th of last year. I feel so badly for anyone who has gotten such delivery of news for any reason. Stressful only scratches the surface of ways to describe that event. I won the lottery when it comes to pancreatic malignancies- I got the well-behaved one. Still, that day has become a part of who I am and how I treat others. 

I have revealed a little more of myself to you, and a little more of my husband's experience (sorry, Chris, if you are even reading this). In exchange for your time, here's a little more of that ink: 

Sunday, February 14, 2016

I don't know who you are anymore (a.k.a. being true to oneself)

The other morning Phil Collins found his way to my Pandora Internet Radio Station. "In the Air Tonight." The former me would have reflexively leapt to the radio and changed the station to pretty much anything else- including commercials. I didn't change the station that morning. I listened to Phil Collins because I actively like that particular song, and I no longer feel the need for my music selections to be cool, trendy, underground, or otherwise. Nor do I feel the need to be closeted in my like for Phil Collins, so much so that it is now published on the Internet for all to see.

When my husband found out I started writing this blog, he said to me, "I don't know who you are anymore!" This was coupled with the "new" information that I happen to really love Johnny Cash's version of "Hurt," of Nine Inch Nails The Downward Spiral fame. I say "new" because this should have not been new information to anyone, really, as it's a fantastic rendition of an already great song, but when I started publicly writing about my personal struggles (and liking Johnny Cash/NIN), I somehow didn't fit who my husband perceived me to be. He had to adjust his perception of me, and I'm fine with that, and though I can't speak for him, I think he was fine with that, too. 

So why confess that I'm down with Phil Collins? Not just Genesis Phil Collins (that was always OK), but regular ol' solo artist Phil Collins. To illustrate a change that happened slowly over time and all at once. I say slowly over time because I think confidence sometimes accompanies age and experience (but not always), but all at once because of my experience with my sort of cancer and surgery. I don't care what you think of me anymore. You think I'm a bossy know-it-all akin to Hermione Granger? Fine. You don't like me? Yep, I probably know you don't like me (and I don't care). You don't agree with my viewpoints, political, religious, or otherwise? Oh, well. Don't get me wrong. I care about YOU, your thoughts and opinions (even if they don't align with mine), and your mere existence in this magnificent life, but I don't care what you think of me. Really. Sure, I still get insecure at times. For example, writing like this leaves me feeling a bit vulnerable, but overall, I'm doing what I do because I want to. Not because of how you will perceive me. 

In addition to the admission that I unapologetically like Phil Collins, I have physical evidence to provide. 

Excuse the low-quality photo, but that is MY arm. That's right, I got a tattoo. More specifically, Chris (my husband) "gave" me the tattoo for Christmas. No, I haven't lost my mind and let Chris come anywhere near me with a needle, but he got me the artist and appointment, and he paid for it. Before my surgery, I didn't want a tattoo. I didn't have anything against the tattooed, it just wasn't my thing. Once my surgery forever altered my anatomy, the idea of forever altering the color of my skin with a pretty design didn't seem so outrageous of a choice for me to make for myself. To reiterate, I did this because I wanted to. Not because of what others would think of me, positively or negatively, but because I saw a design that would make an awesome tattoo. Obviously, the photo above shows a just glimpse of the bottom of my tattoo. I don't have only three-fifths of a book tattooed to my right arm. Some of you have seen my tattoo in person, but the rest of you will have to wait for the day I feel like showing you the entire piece via the Internet. Know me IRL (in real life)? Just ask to see it and I'll gladly show you. 

The reactions to my tattoo have been varied. The best was probably one of my sisters who seemed shocked that I, of all people, had just gone and gotten a tattoo one day. I've also gotten "I don't like tattoos." Well, I do. If you aren't in to tattoos? Fine. You could choose to alter the way you think of me as one of "those" people who has tattoos (c'mon, what does that even mean?). Or, you could alter the way you think of people who have tattoos. Don't like me AND you don't like my tattoo? No need to adjust your perception at all, then. A psychologist I know theorizes that people with health problems are more likely to get tattoos because it's a way to control something about their bodies. I think there's some truth to that. Did the tattoo change me? No, but I changed and got a tattoo.

I hope you have enjoyed my confessions of the day. Phil Collins, blog writing, Johnny Cash, NIN, and finally, my tattoo. I feel like I should somehow weave "Hurt" ("I hurt myself today, to see if I still feel.") with my tattoo story, but I didn't think the tattoo hurt at all, and I don't feel like speaking in clichés right now. I'll save that for another day, maybe the day I show you the rest of my tattoo =) .