Blogging in the Netherlands

This afternoon, I’ll be departing for two weeks in the Netherlands. Diane Tucker, who heads up the Science and Technology Honors Program at UAB, and I are co-leading a program focusing on the sustainability efforts in place in Holland–one of the most innovative and technologically sophisticated countries in the world. What’s the alternative, really, when much of your living space is technically below sea level?

Seventeen students are joining us for this adventure. They come from a variety of disciplines: engineering, anthropology, business, English, public health.

We’ve set up a blog to record our experiences:

Amsterdam, here we come!


Sadhvi’s blog

Sadhvi Batra, a former student of mine from the Science and Technology Honors Program, is completing a Master’s in Public Health at UAB prior to heading off to medical school. This semester, she’s enrolled in an epidemiology course, and one assignment requires her to create a blog devoted to a particular health issue. She selected breast cancer and asked me to respond to some questions about my experiences for one of her posts.

The task appeared simple enough, since most of Sadhvi’s questions focused on the basics: how I responded when I first learned I had cancer, how the experience changed my life, how I choose to channel the experience into advocacy and writing, and what advice I’d give to other breast cancer survivors. As I worked through the questions, though, I began to see things that I haven’t noticed in a long time. Because I knew I was writing down my experiences for a blog post, I responded in a conversational tone–a departure from the theory-driven prose I often rely on when writing for an academic audience.

Here, for example, is how I answered Sadhvi’s question about mustering the strength to respond to a life-threatening disease:

“I wouldn’t say that survivors somehow discover a hidden source of strength and that’s what gets them through. The fact is that when bad things happen, and I’d certainly call a cancer diagnosis a pretty bad thing, you have a choice. You can either lose yourself in grief or pick yourself up and figure out how to move on. That doesn’t necessarily mean that you find a happy place in Cancerland (as Barbara Ehrenreich calls the culture of pink that many associate with breast cancer) or that you discover a way to get over/forget the trauma of cancer. It just means that you move on knowing that your life, however long it might be, won’t be the same as it was before diagnosis. Regardless of the challenges you face, you can still maintain passion for the people you care about and you can use the experience to do something productive.”

And here’s my response to a question about how experiencing a devastating illness changed me:

“Having breast cancer at a young age (29), and then experiencing it again when I was a little bit older (and facing a different set of challenges), has undoubtedly colored my world. I am basically a hopeful person, but I also expect life to throw me some curveballs. I think that’s what living is–enjoying some good times and learning how to endure the bad times. Bad things are going to happen, and they should, I think, in equal measure. Otherwise, what are we doing here?

I wouldn’t say that I am grateful for my diagnosis, but I would say that my identity as a survivor has forced me to search for a level of depth that I might not have gone looking for had cancer not happened.

I’ve seen things that I might never have slowed down long enough to see because of cancer. I’ve held the hand of a man dying of cancer in a hospice along the banks of the Bagmati River in Kathmandu, Nepal, and I rubbed the forehead of a young woman suffering from advanced cervical cancer in Lusaka, Zambia. I’ve accompanied my friend, Edwina, who spent most of her years living on the streets of Birmingham, to appointments at Cooper Green and insisted that her doctors give her the same level of care as any other patient.”

Once I started talking about my life in plain English, allowing myself to acknowledge how I feel as well as how I think, I discovered something that I tend to forget when I’m caught up in the frenzy of pitching ideas to editors, writing and revising, and racing against real (and imaginary) deadlines. My experiences as a cancer survivor and as a friend to others facing cancer are worth sharing. They don’t always have to be presented through an angle that shouts, “Hey, this is why readers should care about this!” or “Here’s a theory that will explain why I feel the way I do.” Sometimes, it’s enough just to tell it like it is. No apologies.

Media(ting) Madness

As much as I love logging onto my computer every morning to see what’s going on in the world, as well as in the lives of my favorite social media friends, sometimes the plethora of information and continual commentary on said information is a tad much. At the risk of sounding like an old fogey, things aren’t as simple as they used to be for us writers.

The October pink is already on–with magazines, newspapers, blogs, and TV talk shows telling and retelling stories of survivorship, cutting-edge research, screening guidelines, and of course, tips for supporting the cure by buying pink. Some notable products this year include a pink ergonomic chair, pink Christmas tree ornaments, and a shiny pink wreath suitable for hanging on a front door, office wall, car grill–you name it!

Commercialism aside, I find myself caught up each year in an increasingly frantic chase to be one of the lucky freelancers to get  a story in print or online. And in a media world that never slows down, coming in first is immensely, frustratingly, excitingly challenging.

One case in point is the work I’m doing with David Jay, the photographer who traveled to Alabama to document images of young women with breast cancer. I’ve commited hours to interviewing each woman and uncovering a wealth of stories, and while several pubs are in the works for the spring, the iron is so hot at the moment that it’s hard to turn away.

So, queries are sent out. Personal essays are submitted in full. New angles are attempted and revamped.

Fortunately, I’ve nailed down one publication–online, this time around–that is proving to be very exciting. I’m working with Hina P. Ansari, a blog writer from Huffington Post Canada, to tell the stories of four of the women David photographed. All have Triple Negative breast cancer and are struggling with a host of health care and life issues.

Here’s a link to one of Hina’s recent posts:

Stay tuned for this first of (what I hope are) many contributions to the madness of breast cancer coverage in the media during the month of October!

Oh, and a side note: Hina is the granddaughter of a well-known Bollywood director and actor known as the “Hitchcock of Bollywood.” How utterly cool is that?!

Hiding beneath the covers

During the past two weeks, my family has been glued to the TV watching the world’s best in swimming, gymnastics, and cycling. One thing that I find agonizing as an occasional sports fan–and that I realize must drive hardcore fans insane–is the way in which an athlete’s emotional state can either invigorate or devastate performance.  We watched our own men’s gymnastics team breathe in a wind of defeat and subsequently forget that they still had a shot at a medal. The same thing happened to the Russian women’s team, as the Fabulous Five nailed their final routines and brought home a gold medal. Go US!

Since I last sat down to share my thoughts on this blog, I’ve been reeling from another kind of feeling that has nudged me off my game. Completely, it seems, judging from the time lapse (almost a full month) since I last posted.

This summer has been unusually difficult, and while I could list a slate of reasons–a broken-down laptop that has made two round-trip journeys to Dell and yet still overheats, rejection from a “big name” women’s magazine that I had pinned my hopes (and a  heart-in-my-throat essay) on, continual challenges to Edwina’s health, the list could go on–I can’t help but think it’s something more than the day-in, day-out challenges that are getting me down.

I am officially burnt out. Tired. Worn. Frustrated. Facing writer’s block and not caring much. Have I actually closed the door on my ambitious, creative self, the same self that I’ve relied on for years to be an open window to new possibilities?

It’s a feeling akin to the weariness you feel when a flu bug grabs hold and won’t let go. Try as you might to get through the day, at some point there’s no choice but to give into the exhaustion, head to bed, and wish for renewed strength tomorrow.

Sometimes, just a few hours beneath the covers does the trick. Other times, waking up to a better day takes more time.

Why blog, why now?

Despite my aversion to technology, I’ve decided to brave the blogosphere. I’m one of those people who thrives on new adventures and challenging projects, so why not give blogging a try? Besides, I have plenty of students–not to mention my own kids–who will gleefully teach me how to use this site properly.  And then giggle. 

This blog is an attempt of sorts to bring together the many facets of my life that might be of interest to others. Let me begin by explaining why I chose the title “Cancer hits the streets” and the kinds of musings you’ll discover on this site.

I’m a 47-year-old English professor, freelance writer, and mom. When I was 29, I was diagnosed with breast cancer and life hasn’t been the same since. At the time, my greatest fear was that I wouldn’t survive. But I did, long enough to experience cancer a second time–this go-around with two beautiful daughters by my side.

For me, cancer stirred an impulse to hit the streets, running. Why put off until tomorrow what I can do today? I don’t buy into the notion that we cancer survivors should interpret our diagnoses as “gifts,” but I do know that we learn something crucial through the experience–our lives, current and imagined, can and do change in a nanosecond. While we all recognize that this truth applies to every one of us, hearing the news that some part of your body isn’t functioning properly and might never return to normalcy brings that truth into remarkable, frightening focus.

For 17 years now, I’ve kept moving. Some may say I’m running away from what might be lurking around the next corner (or “whom,” as in an M.D. expressing concern over the results of a recent MRI). I prefer to think of myself as running “through” life–acknowledging the good and the bad and having the chutzpah to face my opponents (whether a disagreeable cellular gathering, a reluctant editor, or an aggressive bull roaming a Hindu temple–more on that later).

My journey has taken me to amazing places and led me to fascinating people. In India, I travelled through the health care system after a run-in with a bull–yes, the aggressive one. In Africa, I met women who are struggling with cervical cancer, a diagnosis that is rarely life-threatening in the United States thanks to technological advances and cultural acceptance of these advances. My classrooms are filled with bright, determined students who want to make their own mark on the world as scientists, engineers, writers, and teachers. And during the past year-and-a-half, I’ve immersed myself in a community of homeless cancer survivors who literally make their way on the streets of Birmingham, Alabama. The pace at which they walk through life while managing their disease has taught me a thing or two about what it means to be a survivor.

It’s a rich life, and I welcome you to come along for the ride.