(Not) Tossing Tatum

I have one year of hair. It’s my Hair-iversary. Since my shorn-like-Sinead debut last June, all wigs and hats have been stuffed unceremoniously into boxes and bags, cluttering the dark closet corners where I keep other things I’m too sentimental to toss: the original draft of my PhD dissertation, my prom dress, the typing trophy, and squeezy skinny jeans. Last year I must have written a dozen times how excited I was to burn and banish Tatum (wigs have names: mine was a Tri Delt), but one year later, she’s still on the shelf with other fears I’m too superstitious to toss.

Those of you that read the informative, well balanced, and (let’s face it) bleak essay by Peggy Orenstein learned that we “survivors” (blech) never really get away from fear and superstition. For us, there is no such thing as remission, much less a Cure, no matter how many people run and walk and row and shop and throw money at it. And now with the Pinking of America, none of us is spared from these ubiquitous, bubblegum-hued reminders to remain vigilant. With the best intentions, Komen has made breast cancer the sex offender in the neighborhood: as long as we’re aware (and incessantly imaging and chipping away at our breasts), we will be safe.

But that’s not true. Not at all.

Instead, this crazed awareness browbeats healthy women into an anxiety-riddled, breast-smashing exam as a 40th birthday rite of passage. And it’s quite possible that the only significant result of all of this awareness is earlier detection of cancers. But because this disease is still killing us with the same, disturbing frequency, it’s quite possible that much of that early detection wasn’t entirely necessary. Instead, it just means that girls like me get to live with this Survivorship status for an extra decade. But you won’t find disgruntled grumblings from this set of hairless amputees. Nope, we’d do it all over again. And then blog about how freaking lucky we are to be alive to clean the house with a pink vacuum.

I have one of these.

I have one of these.

I’m quite interested in any data that suggests I completely over-reacted to my breast cancer. Maybe my little cluster of rogue cells had already been there for a decade, and like her homebody host, never had any interest in travel. But maybe an evil, cellular dictator crossed the basement membrane in the six months between my 40th birthday and actual appointment for my slightly tardy (life-saving?) mammogram. Right now, scientists have no crystal ball to discern which breast cancers linger around like an unemployed college graduate and which ones are plotting for total body domination. And since they don’t know, girls like me mix superstition and treatment like cocktails, and then toast each other that we did everything we could.

It might be going a tad too far to call the removal of my non-cancerous breast “superstition.” However, as a scientist, I knew that drastic surgery wouldn’t change any statistics related to my survival. My breast surgeon and oncologist urged me (as they should) not to conflate cancer treatment with prevention, but reading Ms. Orenstein’s story—and knowing scores of others—I wonder if there is any kindness in extending the anxiety of yearly mammograms (for decades!) to save a breast? If there is NO CURE, no widely applicable tests to predict recurrence, and the only tools we have are imaging and butchery… shouldn’t we attempt to limit body-deforming procedures and radiation?

When her cancer recurred, and Ms. Orenstein considered a bilateral mastectomy, her doctor argued that an “average woman” wouldn’t cut off her breast to prevent an unlikely cancer. And yet, the “average woman” might not need four Ativan to get through a yearly, breast-flattening reminder of a disease that already tried to kill her. And a very, very low threshold for biopsy of any suspicious densities puts the “survivor” right back under the scary knife more often than the “average woman.” The remaining breasts of women with a history of cancer (or radiation) are treated like the heads of a family of vigorously nitpicking monkeys. The breast may be saved, yes, but it also may be bruised and biopsied at regular intervals for a lifetime. A bilateral mastectomy might not have been medically necessary for me, but it was psychologically crucial. Also, being unfailingly vain, I wanted a matched set right off the bat. There’s something you won’t read in the New York Times: mastectomy as a means to obtain the best post-cancer rack.

The latest “news” in breast cancer wasn’t really news to me. I know that statistics are on my side, that my complete surgical annihilation of cancers known and unknown won’t improve those numbers, that I might never have needed the treatment I got, and also that this might be the exact thing that kills me. Awareness isn’t helping us survive, but including more in our ranks. (And truth be told, the world hardly needs another blogging breast cancer survivor… plenty in my own family wish I would stop already.) But as we continue to shuttle more and more women at earlier and earlier stages into Survivorship, is the charge to Save The Breast the kindest dictate for these women? Should psychological and aesthetic reasons for a bilateral mastectomy be discussed, or will this continue to be touted as unnecessarily brutal “prevention?” I have no idea. Though I worship science, I’ve approached my own disease with fear and superstition: you’ll never hear this breastless girl say she’s “cancer-free,” nor will she ever tempt the fates or jinx her luck by tossing out Tatum.

The only badge of “survivorship” I’m willing to flaunt is One Year of Hair. It’s my Hair-iversary. I’m expecting presents.

Ask and ye shall receive...

Ask and ye shall receive…

The Local News, by Steve Safran

I want to tell you a little bit about working in local news.

It’s messy and complicated. It’s filled with drudgery. It’s overnights for years without recognition. It’s reporters who start in small markets with pay so low they take a second job, usually as a waiter or waitress. Pilots describe their job as “Hours of boredom with moments of terror.” There’s not a lot of terror in news.

Until Monday.

My friends in local news work their asses off to tell stories that affect people’s lives. They are lumped in with “the media,” so often used these days as an insult. But “the media” is people: normal people (mostly). People at work the same way you work. Working in news is just like working in any company.

Except when you get something wrong.

I do not for a moment defend the inaccurate reporting that went on Wednesday. That was terrible journalism. That was rumor-mongering. That was the absence of the rule to have at least two sources. The oft-quoted saying in journalism is “If your mother says she loves you, get a second source.” News let us down Wednesday.

But, for the most part, that was the national news. What inaccuracies were reported locally were sourced, as in “According to the AP…” That’s not an excuse. That’s how it works. And how it doesn’t. My friend Cory Bergman at BreakingNews.com had a perfect tweet midday Wednesday as the networks were pulling back from the report that a bomber was arrested. Cory’s site was not reporting any such arrest. And Cory tweeted “And that’s why Breaking News is still waiting.”

Props, Cor.

Local journalism can be silly. We’ve all seen those “WILL THIS THING KILL YOUR CHILDREN? TUNE IN AT 11!” teases.

But it can also rise to the occasion. On 9/11, NECN was on the air for 60 hours straight. Tom Melville, the Assistant News Director anchored overnight. Everyone pitched in. NECN News Director (and now GM at WBUR – an example of excellence in reporting) Charlie Kravetz gave cool-headed direction and insisted upon accuracy. We held off until we knew.

On Monday, as the bombs went off at the Marathon Finish Line, I am quite certain the instinct would have been to run like hell. But the journalists stayed: people like Steve Silva of Boston.com, who was there simply shooting what he hoped were inspiring stories. As soon as the explosion hit, Steve ran to get more footage. That’s not sensationalism. That’s journalism. And, though he’ll shrug it off, that’s bravery.

My friends in local news tried to make sense of the chaos. Mike Nikitas at NECN anchored calmly and accurately. Kathy Curran of WCVB, there to report on the race, put on her local news hat and stood within yards of the explosion reporting. Producers and Assignment Editors in every newsroom – unheralded though they are – scrambled to keep things organized and on the air. The national anchors dropped in later. But the local newsies were there from the first second.

I worked in local news from 1992 – 2006, and continued to work with stations as a consultant right up to last month. 20 years of experience. I can tell you what I know for sure: the people who bring you the local news are, well, wicked awesome.


The Basement

Teddy is scared of the basement. I totally get this. I was always scared of the basement. It’s where spiders and monsters and murderers lurk. The basements of my youth were unfinished spaces. In one house, Dad put up a makeshift curtain divider to separate his workbench and tools and things-in-storage from the area we were allowed to rollerskate and jump on old mattresses, chalk foursquare courts onto the concrete floor and make forts with moving boxes. Occasionally one of us would be sent to retrieve an item from Beyond the Curtain: a space that wasn’t illuminated by the light switch, but instead required wild grasping in the dark until a grateful hand met with the pull cord of a naked bulb. That moment before contact with the blessed string was probably the height of scary for me as a kid. But now Teddy, my funny, imaginative little 8 year old, won’t go down to the basement alone because… well… maybe we should sweep it for bombs first.

I think we all feel like we just finished explaining Newtown to our children. And now, there’s another bad guy… and he’s still out there… and he knows how to make and hide bombs. (And if the good guys can’t find him, maybe he’s hiding in the basement.) Our church, our schools, and everyone on Facebook tell us to look for the helpers. Brodie and Teddy saw their dad suit up in scrubs, throw on a white coat, drive closer to bombs, and enter hospitals armed with guns (to keep the bad guys out, or keep them in?). They might be proud that Daddy is a “helper,” but more than usual, they want to know when he’s coming home.

“So this is probably the second worst day of my life?” Teddy wondered at dinner on Monday night. Because “that time the guy killed all of those kids was the worst.” This was followed by a discussion of how 9/11 would trump even these, but they weren’t born yet. Jesus. When I was 8, I’m sure I couldn’t name a single murderous event that didn’t involve a fictitious, deranged goalie, much less three acts of belief-shaking violence. Those things lurking Beyond the Curtain of my youth were unnamable, fantasy, and just on the cusp of exhilarating (if it weren’t for the more tangible and real threat of spiders). The fears of my children are spun from things on TV in the afternoon.

Later, there was this: “Should we have a moment of silence?” asked my 9 year old. Brodie, whether he knows it or not, looks for answers (or solace) in Prayer. Reluctant to sob in front of my little guys, I deflected that with “who wants ice cream?” I’m not ready for a Moment of Silence. Here’s the loneliest thought: there will be no answers to the why Why WHY of it all in even the most momentous of silences. And until they catch the bad guys, I’m still too distracted and scared to pray to anyone… but what many of us feel (regardless of your brand of spiritual cracker) is that we’re praying for each other.

Here in Boston, familiar sights are outlined with yellow tape and there’s nothing else but this on TV. Here in the Lee household, Daddy is a helper but there might be bombs in the basement. We’re all grasping for that cord in the dark, and finding… each other. Although we’re sad, there is great love amongst us. (See: countless acts of kindness, frantic Facebook queries and assurances, The Yankees, and Chicago.) We’re not defeated! But right now, here in Boston (here at the Lee’s), we have no explanations to alleviate the basement fears of an 8 year old boy. An 8 year old boy. An 8 year old boy.

We are all Bostonians right now.

We are all Bostonians right now.

Thinking of Martin… always thinking of Martin.

Ten Awesomely Wonderful Things to Say to Someone With Cancer

These messages made me cry and giggle, made me feel warm and loved. And even if these bon mots never find your lips or keyboard at the right time, “I’m sorry this is happening to you… and I love you” never misses the mark.

“Steel yourself for the hurdles before you, take strength from the ardent support of those around you, seek communion with the Lord’s will and His peace, and keep plowing forward through the awfulness.”

“Whatever it takes. I support you and all you do. Unless you crochet. I can’t get behind that.”

“…with so much love, there is no choice but to come out the other side whole and well. I know this to be true. And will be one of the ones who knows this for you if you ever need reminding.”

“Please know that you’ve made us one community and we will always want to know how you are doing. We are all here for you. Forever.”

“Long hair, short hair, or no hair at all, you will be a tough-as-nails badass camouflaged in Lilly Pulitzer dresses beating the shit out of cancer.”

“I am in awe of your strength, your support system, and your ability to put together a good outfit.”

“Hello God? I am a bit pissed off. Stop fucking with my sister. She has done nothing but support you despite our innate human inability to understand your mysterious ways. Enough is enough. Thanks in advance.”

“Yup. You’ve gotten my husband to pray. Look at the power you have!! We’re going to be thinking about you obsessively tomorrow. With crazy adoration.”

“I send you much love and am figuratively wrapping you in one of those shiny silver post marathon blankets.”

“Fuck. Fuck! FUCK!  Should we go get drunk?”

A picture worth even more: a dear friend's "alter" sending my whole family sweet aloha breezes.

A picture worth even more: a dear friend’s “altar” as a portal to send my whole family sweet aloha breezes


Messages abound of What Not To Do. Don’t admit you want to get married (at Princeton), or that you want to stay home with sticky children, or that you almost never shop at Whole Foods. And don’t eat baby carrots. Ever. But certainly don’t say that to someone with Cancer. Maybe these messages are true, and mean well, smooth over cocktail conversations, lasso you to the tony social circle, and prevent tumors. But, to me, they all sound like this: “listen up, dummy.” Three people sent this to me yesterday. It’s genius, and a diagram… so, obviously, I love it. But like so many of the messages of the day, it’s also a bit of a finger-wagging admonishment of Things Not To Do.

Superfamous blogging/tweeting Lisa Bonchek Adams compiled a list of crap things uttered to the cancerous, and she recently reprised the list now that news of her own metastatic disease inspired even more awkward responses. The list is horrifying. The list is unbelievable. The list is… hilarious. The Cancer Girl in me reads these smugly: oh, yes… you wouldn’t believe what someone once said to me. What an idiot/bitch/zealot. But even though I heard some doozies, they never (ever) made me angry… certainly they didn’t make anything worse. I already had Cancer. In fact, the really awful, thoughtless comments were fun to share with my girlfriends later with giggly, text-y glee.

“Oh. My. God. It says, ‘Well, make the best of it!!’ Yup. Exclamation points and all. Obviously I’m approaching this all wrong. I don’t need wigs and Ativan… just fezzes and kazoos.”

But this is difficult stuff: we’d all like to deliver the perfect response to shitty news, and yet in the moment ridiculous things fly out of our mouths and keyboards. After Lisa’s husband (an old high school crony) shared her website with me–and only weeks later the news that her Cancer was back–I was praying for her. And after reading a heart-wrenching tweet in the wee hours, I wrote something to the effect of oodles of us on our knees on her behalf. Little did I know those sentiments were about as useful to her as barrettes during chemo. Had I read earlier posts from Lisa, I would have learned that she finds the Churchy Jesus Girl approach sort of annoying. Ooops. A few tweets later she sort of asked for well-wishers (like me) to keep all the goofy praying crap under wraps. It wasn’t helping her.

See? Even The Girl With Cancer can say The Wrong Thing. It’s so easy to do. And though we can poke fun at an acquaintance’s blunder, or ignore the tweeted prayer of a Bible-thumping stranger, when The Wrong Thing flies out of the mouth of someone closer, we’re troubled enough to issue reprimanding blog posts. I had my own when I first entered Cancerland. But on the anniversary of my mastectomies, which has been my most difficult day in the Era of New Hair, the only words that I remembered were the good ones.

Most thoughtful friends and supporters of the cancerous can avoid the stupid remarks (more easily than I can), but often wonder, “What is the right thing to say?” Whenever I am asked that, I think of Drew. The night before my surgery he sent this:

“We will love you most on January 17th… until January 18th when we will love you more.”

Sifting through the cards and emails and messages from those scary days, I compiled my own catalog chronicling a chorus of kindnesses. And if you have the grave misfortune of knowing me on Facebook (I’m a frequent updater, a rather public guilty pleasure), you might have seen it there. Quite easily I could find scores of wonderfully “right” things to say. I thought it deserved its own page devoid of the smug finger wagging of the breastless. (Not that we don’t deserve our finger wagging.) Ten Awesomely Wonderful Things to Say to Someone With Cancer. I hope you’ll add to it.

The instinctive goodness of an eight year old...

Kids never get this stuff wrong…


Steve is feeling the chirpy-birdy, sunshiny effects of Springtime in Boston. Here’s his wake up call to all of us: communication is not a competitive sport.

Have your love, your lust, your crazed, Cirque du Soleil sex. Enjoy your puppy dogs and rainbows, this-person-is-perfect-for-me, Teenage Dream early days of a relationship. Treasure the weeks and months you will likely never get again– not because of cynicism, but because you simply can only have the joy of discovering someone once. After that, what you need is communication.

Want a great relationship? Communicate.
Want a divorce? Don’t.

It’s almost as simple as that. The communication needs to be respectful, which is equally obvious as it is difficult. But when you hear shit you don’t like, the healthy couple response is “I’m sorry you feel that way– let’s talk it through.” The guaranteed divorce response is “You shouldn’t feel that way… oh, and screw you.”

“All You Need is Love?” Due respect to Messrs. Lennon and McCartney, it’s not so. But “All You Need is Healthy, Respectful Dialogue” wouldn’t have been a good hippie mantra and would have been harder to sway to.

We communicate so poorly when we’re trying to win the argument. But in our competitive world, this the one time we should be aiming for a tie game. (Apart from soccer and don’t get me started there.) Communication, done properly, is a mutual win. But that’s marriage counsel-y stuff, and I don’t have the right feel good degree to help with that. (See: every other post of mine.)

Here’s what I do know. When you cut someone off in traffic, they’ll give you the finger. When you brush shoulders on the sidewalk, you’ll say “I’m sorry” and they’ll say “No problem.” Internet and TV arguments work the same way. It’s what Roger Waters called “The Bravery of Being Out of Range.” But in our closest, most intimate, important relationships, we can get out of range right there at the kitchen table.

(Incidentally, I respond to all rotary enraged bird-flipping by blowing kisses. Smootches, jerkface!)

I really have no other relationship insight. Oh—wait. One more: double sinks. When you’re buying a place, be sure the master bath has double sinks. You have to trust me on this one. Double sinks will make you a nicer person. You won’t fight over toothpaste, how she takes too long, how he leaves his shavings, why there are eleven different bottles of hair goop– double sinks win. In the space of one morning, this means four fewer arguments in tight spaces.

So in the Springtime of the relationship, enjoy the circus sex, the romance, and the googly-eyed sink sharing and synced swaying. That’s what the Beatles were crooning about. But we need to communicate less like Boston drivers to keep things humming. We need to continue the conversation… sidewalk style.

Let's stay on the sidewalk together.

Let’s stay on the sidewalk together.