June 14th, 2013
In honor of father’s day, I’m posting this essay about my dear old dad and my husband—and how my allegiance to both is sometimes tested when it comes to matters of the home (improvement).
MY FATHER, THE HANDYMAN
I’m hiding in my master bathroom, whispering into the phone while my husband, Nick, stands on our bed, tools in hand, light fixture dangling from the ceiling. “I think he shut off the electricity but I’m not sure,” I say. “Oh my God, Dad, what if he didn’t?!” This is not an uncommon scene. You see my father is an expert handyman and my husband, while increasingly handy, is still new to the whole DIY, home-ownership thing. The problem: I’m a 35-year-old mother of two who’s been married for nearly eight years. My loyalty should lie with my husband…and yet I still find myself dialing my dad behind Nick’s back when I hear the toolbox open. It’s just hard to have complete faith in him when what hangs in the balance is a home I love—one we’ll be living in until the end of time since we bought it about a week before the housing bubble burst. And when it comes to home improvement (and not getting yourself electrocuted), my father really does know best.
The smell of sawdust and spackle were as much a part of my childhood as Barbie, Ken and the Keatons. I don’t think a day went by without seeing a screwdriver in my father’s hand. His basement workshop overflowed with fascinating things like plumb lines and levels and nuts and washers in every size you could imagine. I remember going down there in my nightgown after dinner and watching him work, hands pressed over my ears to dull the piercing whir of the buzz saw. I always hoped he’d ask me to pass him something and hoped even harder that I could remember the difference between, say, a Phillips head and a flathead. Little girls are supposed to think their dads can do anything, but mine really could. He’d make us wooden airplanes we’d spray paint gold and stools with our names carved into them so we could reach the sink to brush our teeth. When my parents bought our house in the 70s it was a one-bedroom ranch. Today it’s got two stories, five bedrooms and lots of cool personal touches (like a living room made completely out of wood reclaimed from a Pennsylvania barn). And my dad was there for every floorboard, every shingle, every nail. It went through so many transformations that I don’t even recognize the house in that photo above. I think my mother loved the fact that there was nothing my father couldn’t do himself, but I know she not-so-secretly loathed it, too (a repairman, while costly, usually finishes a job swiftly and completely, doesn’t leave his tools strewn all over the kitchen and rarely drops a %*&! or a $#!@ in front of the children).
It’s no surprise that when my husband, Nick, and I bought our first house, my dad was involved from the moment before we signed the contract (“you don’t need to hire an inspector, I can do the inspecting” he insisted). Obviously, we leaned on him and, often, like when our kitchen sink was mysteriously and ever…so…slowly…leaking, he saves the day. And he loves it. I know because any time my sisters call him to save their day (we all now live within a six-minute radius of my parents), he will casually work it into conversation: “So, did you hear we finally got the toilet fixed at Melissa’s?” or “You gotta go by Meghan’s and see the shoe molding we put it.” He lives for this stuff. And he’s really good at it. He is one of those renaissance men who has literally worn every hat there is—from cabinet maker to air traffic controller to techie business owner. And many, many things in between.
But of course any good story needs conflict and there is some of that, too. (Cue the whispered phone conversations whenever Nick tackles a job without consulting my dad.) Nick is smart and self made and not keen on asking others for help, something I clearly don’t suffer from. Especially since, deep down, I still believe my dad knows pretty much everything (poor Nick). But, my father believes that his way is the right way and never approves of calling a real expert (he didn’t speak to me for a few days after I had actual fence people put in our fence.) And he often leaves his jobs only 90 percent complete mumbling, “you can touch up around the molding” or “just put a little phenoseal on it” as he walks out the door. And he brings a work ethic and level of intensity that is not for the faint of heart. There may be cursing. There may be yelling. There won’t be breaks. And he expects an assistant (this used to be one of his daughters, now it’s a son in law) to stand next to him at all times. All of this forces a delicate balancing act for his three daughters, who adore our father but also our husbands—and our autonomy.
Still, in the six years we’ve been in our house, Nick has developed a real passion for home improvement, which my dad respects beyond words. Nick recently refinished our kitchen table and every time my dad is over, he marvels at what a good job Nick did (he also marvels to me at what a mediocre job Nick did patching the hole in our ceiling so it’s not like he’s losing his edge or anything). I’m often caught in the middle of the two men in my life, defending Nick to my dad “Eh, it doesn’t have to be perfect!” and my dad to Nick, “Babe, he just wants to help.” But the truth is, Nick has learned a lot from my dad. And I know he appreciates the guidance (and the tools and nifty gadgets he gets for every holiday) and, when needed, the helping hand. There’s been a slow passing of the blowtorch and it’s awesome to see. Some dads connect over baseball or golf or Cuban cigars. While my father loves all of those things too, it’s when he’s working with his hands, fixing, improving, doing that he’s at his best. The fact that he’s willing to share that with the next generation truly is a gift. And we need to soak it up. As hard as it is to think about, my dad won’t always be around to run over and tighten a faucet or put up some drywall. Any time I think about cutting him out of a project we’re doing, I think of this. Sure, my dad is always going to think he can do it better—and maybe he always will—but I know it gives him great peace of mind and pride to know he’s teaching the next generation the joy (and the responsibility) of DIYing.
For my part, I’ve learned to let Nick do things his way before reaching for the phone. At first it was about keeping the peace with my husband, who I adore, but now it’s because I just don’t have to. All the years watching my dad in action have paid off. Nick has become really good at plowing through the never-ending, to-do/fix/upgrade list that comes with home ownership. Or maybe it’s that he’s so hell bent on not having his father-in-law up in his grill that he’s willed himself to succeed. Either way, I’m not complaining. Especially since, so far, no one’s been electrocuted.
Happy Father’s Day to all the DIY dads out there (and the ones who call for professional help!). Bottom line: I’m a very lucky girl to have two super handy men in my life. Guess I better make a nice dinner for them on Sunday! Also, a bit of exciting news: On Monday I will be starting as the parenting blogger for Yahoo Shine. Stay tuned for links and more!
June 3rd, 2013
This story originally ran in the September 2009 issue of Parenting magazine. I wrote it while I was 18 weeks pregnant with Nora, about where I am with my third pregnancy now. I wanted to repost it here because so much of what I wrote then still holds true. And I know, for my CML friends especially, how and why I choose to have children while having cancer is a topic of interest. This pretty much says it all.
(Parenting.com) – My son is not a hugger. He’s almost 2 years old, and I can count on one hand the times he’s squeezed his chubby arms around my neck (they all involve my husband running the vacuum). I’m okay with this because on the rare occasion when I do get a hug, I get very emotional. I imagine most moms experience these my-heart-might-burst moments when a seconds-long embrace makes them feel like the luckiest person in the world. But for me, it’s a little different. A little sweeter. And I am a lot luckier. See, I wasn’t supposed to have a baby. I’m a cancer patient. Seven years ago I was diagnosed with chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML), a slow-moving form of blood cancer. I’m in remission, thanks to a medication I take every day that states right smack on the bottle: Do not get pregnant while taking this drug. But I did. Then I stopped my lifesaving medication and endured nine long months of what-ifs: What if the brief exposure to the drug affects the baby? What if my cancer comes back? What if I leave my child motherless? I took a big risk, but it paid off even bigger. Now I want to do it again.
Getting pregnant with Alex was technically done the old-fashioned way, but really there was nothing old-fashioned about it. I had a team of doctors — oncologists, obstetricians, fertility specialists — and we had a strategy, a plan A, B, and C. Because of the risk of miscarriage and birth defects, I couldn’t take Gleevec — the drug that put me in remission — during the pregnancy. But my oncologist didn’t want me to stop it while I was trying to conceive in case it took a while. The less time off Gleevec the better, since it was pretty much a given that without it, the cancer would eventually come back. So the plan was to shelve the pills the second I knew I was pregnant (the half-life of Gleevec is short, so it would likely be out of my system before an embryo even attached to my uterine wall). Then hope the cancer stayed at bay.
Voluntarily skipping Gleevec felt like looking a gift horse in the mouth. I was diagnosed with cancer just six months after the “miracle” drug was approved by the FDA. Before Gleevec, many CML patients didn’t survive more than five years. You may not think of cancer patients as being lucky, but I was incredibly so. Taking Gleevec meant I didn’t have to endure chemotherapy or hospitalization or even lose my hair. I didn’t have to get sick just to get well, which is the unfortunate paradigm of most cancer treatments. My leukemia was whittled away by a little orange pill while I was working, playing, living. Yes, being diagnosed was terrifying for me and my family and I have angst-ridden and annoying tests every three months and will always have a great big question mark on my health, but my life with cancer has not been much different from my life without it. Because of this, I found it hard to grasp why I shouldn’t want to start a family.
Our pregnancy journey kicked off months before we even began trying with a semen analysis (my husband, Nick, loved that), constant blood tests to check my hormone levels, ovulation charting, and a slightly unhealthy obsession with the book Taking Charge of Your Fertility. We didn’t want to go through all the trouble of risking my life to have a child only to find out we were infertile. We were not. Three months into trying, I was pregnant, and seven days after conception — which was confirmed by a hypersensitive blood test at my fertility doctor’s office — I stopped taking Gleevec. Nothing could have prepared me for the screeching halt I felt that first day I didn’t swallow a pill. How would I survive without my safety net? But I did. I had my blood tested every month to see if the cancer was returning, and, amazingly, the results kept coming back negative. I was off treatment for a total of ten months and my disease never made a peep. Other than the epidural giving out just as I started to push (ouch!), the entire process went off without a hitch. Alex was born the day after his due date, plump, healthy, and hungry (double ouch!). I breastfed him for one month, then switched to formula so I could resume Gleevec.
Since having Alex, I have learned that every cliché about parenthood is true. It is a 24/7 job, you never stop worrying, date nights with your husband are definitely a must, and the truest of them all: They grow up so fast. Alex now feeds himself with a fork, bounds down stairs, and says, “Bless you, Mommy” every time I sneeze. Before I know it, he’ll be leaving for college. I know that we are incredibly blessed to have one child, but I’ve always wanted a big family and I hate to think that cancer could take that away from me — and take it away from Alex. I am the middle daughter in a ridiculously close family of three girls. When we were young and bickering over who got to be Barbie’s hairdresser or who raked in more Halloween candy, my mom would say, “Do you know how lucky you are to have each other? Someday you girls are going to be best friends.” We’d roll our eyes, but she was right. My sisters are my best friends, and we are always, always there when it counts. A year and a half after I was diagnosed, we learned that Melissa, the oldest and then seven months pregnant, had Hodgkin’s lymphoma. She began treatment immediately (they delivered her baby at 36 weeks) and went through months of hard-core chemo and radiation, then she relapsed and had to have a grueling stem cell transplant. Meghan and I were with her when she shaved her head, we took turns sleeping in her hospital room, taking care of her son, and when it was time to toast to remission, we had the champagne chilled and ready. Needless to say, I cannot imagine life without my sisters by my side, laughing, crying, bickering. And I want that so badly for Alex.
When I watch him with Melissa’s new baby, it brings this all into focus. No matter where Alex is in a room, if he hears a pacifier drop, he runs to get it, then delicately places it back in his cousin’s mouth. He sings “tinkle, tinkle” and rocks his teddy bears to sleep, and when he sees the little toddlers on his YoBaby yogurt, he points, declares, “Ba-by!” and then puts his finger to his mouth and whispers, “Shh, baby seepin.” If that’s not a sign that he’s ready to be a big brother, I don’t know what is. But it’s just not that simple for us. And as I contemplate going through the roller-coaster ride all over again, I can’t help but wonder: Am I tempting fate? Will I be as lucky the second time? What if I leave two children motherless?
Nick and I recently watched Dan in Real Life, about a widower with three children. How did his wife die? Cancer, I’m sure. They always die of cancer. During one particularly gut-wrenching scene, tears started streaming down my face and an uncomfortable silence filled the room. Finally, Nick said, “Jeez! This is depressing.” It was obvious we were both thinking about him raising our kids alone. We’ve talked about that possibility, of course, and while Nick is an awesome dad, I can’t imagine what it would be like for a little guy to grow up without his mom, without me. Who would sing him made-up songs about dirty diapers and put just enough cream cheese on his toast so that he doesn’t get it all over himself? Who would put him on the bus his first day of school and take pictures at his first baseball game? The thought makes me sick to my stomach. And I imagine that feeling will get exponentially worse with another child. But maybe not. A friend of mine who just had her second post-cancer baby said that having two kids makes her less worried about dying because she knows they would have each other. I guess she has a point. It’s a morbid one, but I get it.
What I try to focus on and explain to any naysayers is that I’m not on my deathbed. I’m not picking out baby names while sitting in the chemo room, pale and sick. But a lot of people don’t see it that way. In response to a blog post I wrote about wanting another baby, an anonymous commenter told me I was an idiot: “This time you’re not just facing the possibility of ending your life but also having a child grow up without a mom,” she wrote. “That in plain terms is selfish all because you can’t be happy with what you currently have, which is a great kid and husband. Horrible.” I’m not going to lie and say that reading stuff like this doesn’t hurt, and that there isn’t a nagging part of me that thinks, what if she winds up being right? When my sister had her transplant — which involved a five-week hospital stay in isolation — her son was the same age Alex is now. I remember him playing in her suitcase as she packed pajamas and magazines and her wig, and then pressing his face up against the window, sobbing “Mommy” as her car pulled out of the driveway, headed for hell.
Of course I don’t ever want my son — or any of his future siblings — to be in that situation. Of course I wouldn’t voluntarily put myself in harm’s way, cavalierly risk my life just so I can hang another stocking on the mantel next Christmas. But the truth is, I don’t think I am. I am not an idiot, and my doctors are behind me. Yes, my oncologist did joke that he would need to buy some hair dye for round two, since this time will definitely make him go gray, but he’s optimistic — and on board. As he put it when we spoke recently, “The question was whether or not to have kids, not how many kids to have.” My plucky, if a little delusional, interpretation of that statement is this: I’ve risked my life once with success, why not do it again? And so… we did.
This time was a little different, though; not so calculated. My doctor has increased confidence in my ability to remain in remission off treatment, so he wanted me to stop Gleevec even sooner to lessen any risk to the baby. Though there isn’t much data, it is known that the danger of exposure lies in the very early developmental stages, so he felt the safest plan would be to stop the drug at ovulation. My cycle is like clockwork and I know my body well, so it wasn’t a problem to determine, especially since we used those handy-dandy ovulation sticks again. For two months I got the smiley face, stopped taking Gleevec, then started again when my period came. This stopping and starting treatment was not ideal (my doctor’s words: “Is this what we recommend to patients? Heck, no”), but given my previous success with getting pregnant fast and staying in remission, it was a pretty good option. And it put the risk on me, not the baby, which is the way I prefer it. Fortunately I didn’t have to do it for long. After the third cycle, I was pregnant.
“Success!” I e-mailed my doctor. I am only 18 weeks pregnant as I write this, but so far so good. Like last time, I am having monthly cancer tests — if there is any change in my blood work, we need to know about it right away. I’m also seeing a high-risk ob-gyn who will be able to work with my oncologist should I need to start treatment at any point (there are a few pregnancy-safe options). But my doctor doubts it will come to that. Is he assuring me the cancer won’t come back this time? Absolutely not. In fact, he ended his last e-mail with “It could be completely different the second time… we don’t know.” But he is hopeful. And so am I.
In the meantime, Nick and I are focusing on the normal second-baby issues — like how we’re going to afford two kids in this economy, whether I’ll make it till January without chardonnay, and which bribes might work to get Alex potty trained in time. It’s not that we don’t understand the real risks; we do. It’s just a lot more fun to worry about what kind of car we’re going to buy than how we’ll deal if my cancer comes back and I have to have a bone marrow transplant, the only known cure for CML. I just don’t see the use in dwelling on the what-ifs anymore. If I’ve learned anything from my cancer experiences, it’s that you never know what will be thrown in your lap tomorrow, and obsessing doesn’t help. But I am thinking about how lucky I am that I get to have another baby, that Alex gets to be a big brother, and that there is life — a lot of life — after cancer.
May 29th, 2013
By now you’ve probably heard about the (latest) Rutgers scandal: Julie Hermann, the newly-appointed athletic director—hired in the wake of the Mike Rice throwing-balls-at-players’-heads-debacle—was herself an emotionally abusive coach. Yep, you read that right. I played volleyball at the University of Tennessee from 1996 to 1997 under Julie. I was one of the 15 players you keep hearing about on the news, the ones who wrote a letter detailing her behavior stating that, among other things, Julie “succeeded in taking a sport we have all dedicated our lives to and making it the enemy.” And it’s all true.
On April 3, I wrote a post for my parenting.com blog about Mike Rice’s abusive tactics and in it I referenced my experience at UT. I didn’t name my coach—it was never my intention to drag up the past—but now I can tell you it was Julie Hermann. So you can imagine my surprise when a few of my teammates facebooked me to say that Julie had just been named the new athletic director at Rutgers. My mouth literally dropped open. And it has continued to drop every day this story has been out, growing uglier and uglier.
Last week several of Julie’s former players were approached by Craig Wolff, a Newark Star Ledger reporter who had dug up some pretty unsavory stuff from Julie’s time at UT. Including our letter. Eventually he called me and I gave him a little background info and confirmed what he was hearing from other players, but I did not go on the record. I was (literally and figuratively) on the sidelines for much of my short tenure as a UT volleyball player. It was a long time ago. I didn’t have much to add and I didn’t want my name involved in what I knew would become a media circus. I am a magazine writer and a blogger and a leukemia survivor and a major advocate for cancer research. I am a mother of two young kids with a third on the way. Like my teammates, I have moved on from my experience at UT.
But here’s what I told Wolff and what I’ll tell you now with my name attached: After our 96/97 season, the team got together—sans coaches—to figure out why we were all so miserable and why we felt so much animosity toward one another. We quickly realized Julie was the common denominator. The letter you’ve seen referenced was written as a result of that meeting. We carefully crafted it, signed it simply “The Lady Vol Volleyball Team,” then brought it to Joan Cronan, our athletic director. Joan called a meeting with the entire team—held in the women’s basketball locker room, which, rightfully so, was way nicer than ours—and we shared our grievances with Julie face-to-face. There were a lot of tears. It was not easy. In addition to the bad times, there had been good times with Julie and this was not the way any of us thought our careers at UT would unfold. But, as the letter stated, it was an irreconcilable issue. After the meeting, Julie walked out and many of us never saw her again. I know I never did.
What’s important to know is that 16 years ago, our intention was to see Julie go because there was no way any of us could continue at UT with her at the helm. Our intention today is not to see her suffer or to take her down in any way. None of us wants that. It is simply to tell the truth because we were asked. And because it is relevant. But we have all moved on from that time. Julie has moved on. And just because she was a bad coach doesn’t mean she can’t be a good administrator. Maybe her experience with us made her a better administrator. Who knows? Sure, she made mistakes but she paid for them at the time by losing her job at UT. It’s only because she was hired at Rutgers—Rutgers!—in the wake of an abuse scandal that our past experience is even relevant. And it is, don’t get me wrong. Everything in that letter is true. But I agree with what many are saying: This reflects worse on Rutgers than it does on Julie.
That said, the reason I have chosen now to speak up is that the blatant denial from so many of the key people involved, people who were handed the letter, people who were in that meeting, is shocking. Even New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is questioning our credibility. I am not commenting on the other baffling memory lapses, just on the one that affects me. My teammates who shared their painful experiences and who went on the record are essentially being called liars and I can’t stand by and let that happen. Not when I have the platform to make a statement of support. To hear our credibility and our motivation called into question is infuriating. For the past few days, we’ve been fielding nonstop calls and emails and facebook requests from producers and writers all over the country. Many of us (myself definitely included) do not want to go on TV. We got dragged into this and we want it to end. We want to get back to our lives. But that doesn’t mean we don’t stand by what we did 16 years ago and the comments we’ve made over the past few days. I do not want anyone to think that we conspired against Julie in any way or that we were untruthful in any way.
My name is out there at this point (and our team photo has been flashed on nearly every network) and that’s why I’ve decided to write this post. On my own blog where I can control the message. To come forward to vouch for what went on, to vouch for my team and for the letter and to say that none of us wants this ugliness on our hands. We want to move on just as we did 16 years ago. We were young, Julie was young, no one was perfect. Mistakes were made and the problem was solved. And while it wasn’t easy for many of us on the team, we worked through it and we persevered. The best part: My teammates and I are still friends (on facebook and in real life). And, above all, we’re proud to have been Lady Vols. My hope now is that we can all move on for the last time.
May 21st, 2013
For us the question wasn’t if we were going to find out the sex of our third, it was when. And how. I know two people who’ve recently had gender reveal showers—they have pink- and blue-themed drinks and snacks and decor and place bets and then there’s a big balloon launch or cake cutting ceremony and the color of said balloons or cake reveals the sex. I think that’s a really cute idea for your first…if you can handle learning that information in front of all your friends and family. I’ve always wanted to find out privately so I have time to process the info (what if one of you were disappointed and it showed?!). With Alex and Nora, the technician at the 20-week sono told us in a very nonchalant way and then we called/texted/emailed our family and friends after the fact. But this time I was up for having a little fun.
Here’s what we did: As I mentioned, I had a chromosome blood test done at 10 weeks that, in addition to other more important things, determined the sex. The doctor wrote it on a piece of paper and stuck it in an envelope. I wasn’t too anxious to open it but everyone else in our families desperately wanted us to. So we came up with a plan. Over Mother’s Day weekend we were down in Florida for a quick family getaway. Nick’s mom met us there for a glorious few days of fun and sun. We hit the ocean, the pool, we played golf, we went to Disney and, most importantly, we got to be with my MIL on Mother’s Day, which I don’t think has happened ever since I’ve known Nick. Her present: The envelope. She cried when we told her what it was and that we wanted her to open it and read it to all of us. We are her only source of grandkids and this is definitely going to be her last so it was extra special. We had a big dinner with the kids and all went around the table taking bets on what it was (Nora’s I-refuse-to-be-wrong response: “I think it’s going to be a girl…OR a boy.”) Then Debbie opened the envelope and gasped and turned the paper around and scrawled in little doctor writing was…
We’re having another girl! After we let it sink in for a few minutes,we called my family who were all at my parents’ for dinner. They put us on speaker and on the count of three Alex and Nora shouted “It’s a girl!” When we first found out we were all kind of shocked. I think deep down I’ve been rooting for a girl all along but after writing my list of reasons I wanted a boy versus a girl, I was starting to like the idea of a boy (i.e. that they are way easier than girls). And Nick and Alex, because they are boys among other reasons, were thinking it would definitely be a boy. I honestly don’t think anyone expected to see girl on that paper although in retrospect, it makes perfect sense (I’ve felt much more icky belly with this pregnancy than with Alex and I also look like crap and don’t they say girls steal your beauty?). We are all thrilled, of course, (and would have been either way), and I think the family dynamic is going to be awesome. Mostly, I am pumped for one reason: My daughters will have a sister. And, as I’ve said, there’s nothing better (yes, I’m biased). So now I have to give away Alex’s old clothes which will free up some storage space and start taking better care of Nora’s clothes and brace myself for more pink (ack!) and, perhaps, take a class in doing hair. At the very least I need to learn how to French braid. I have till November. Stay tuned!
P.S.: As you may have heard, Parenting magazine and parenting.com were bought by another publishing company and the magazine—where I’ve had a writing contract for years—has been closed. The July issue will be the last. Still no word on the fate of parenting.com or Mom Without a Filter so please check back here often for updates. I promise to keep you posted!
May 14th, 2013
By now you’ve probably heard about the op ed Angelina Jolie wrote for The New York Times about her decision to have a preventive double mastectomy (if you haven’t, take a second to check it out now). I read it this morning over coffee and I cried through most of it. As a cancer patient and a mother and a daughter and an advocate for cancer research and prevention, it touched me on so many levels. I think any mom has those moments when she fears she won’t be there to see her children grow up but when you have cancer—or you’ve lost a parent to cancer, as Angelina did—that fear is much more palpable. I literally can’t even type the words without crying. Of course I’m currently off my life-saving cancer medication and 14-weeks pregnant with my third child, so all of the maternal worries and what-ifs are definitely on the front burner. I’d be lying if I said my mind didn’t drift to those dark places lately where I picture saying the impossible goodbyes and Nick raising our three children on his own. We’ve even had the super-fun conversations where I insist that after a respectable period of mourning, he remarry (so long as she doesn’t look like Angelina Jolie). Over the past 11 years, I’ve had countless bone marrow biopsies and blood tests and each time I wait for the results, even though deep down I know I’m fine, I wonder if this will be the time my luck runs out. You better believe if there were some way to (literally) cut that risk down to nearly nothing, I would do it.
We’re constantly reading about what Angelina Jolie does for the international community but I love that she’s brought her do-gooder abilities stateside to help the millions of women affected—and potentially affected—by these cancers. She could have very easily kept her very personal decision private but she didn’t and that, to me, is worthy of all the praise she’s getting today.
“I am writing about it now because I hope that other women can benefit from my experience. Cancer is still a word that strikes fear into people’s hearts, producing a deep sense of powerlessness. But today it is possible to find out through a blood test whether you are highly susceptible to breast and ovarian cancer, and then take action,” she wrote in the op ed.
Giuliana Rancic, Christina Applegate and Sheryl Crow are some of the many celeb moms who’ve gone public with their breast cancer battles, which is awesome, but this is different because Angelina doesn’t have cancer…yet. She was in a position to prevent it and she chose to do so. And by writing about it in such a personal way (I love that she shared her kids’ heartbreaking concern and the fact that they talk about “Mommy’s mommy” and that Brad Pitt was by her side for all the surgeries), she showed other women that they can choose it, too. As mothers, we owe it to our children to do whatever we can to be here for them as long as possible. Taking care of ourselves is the best gift we can give our families. You know how I feel about the importance of maintaining mom mental health (date nights, kid-free time with friends, wine) and the same goes for our physical wellbeing. We need to go to the doctor, to get regular check ups, to follow up on any weird hunches, to get rest, eat well, exercise and, if we can, take whatever measures possible to cut our cancer risks. Because I can tell you, being a mom and having cancer is not a good combination. (Read all about that in my momvivor piece.)
Very recently one of my best friend’s mothers (who I was also very close with) lost her long battle with breast cancer and a day doesn’t go by where I don’t think of both of them and feel extreme sadness. They don’t have the breast cancer gene but I know if they did, my friend—a mother of three—would have already had the surgery. Not that it’s an easy decision or an easy procedure, but if you could do something about your risk, wouldn’t you? I’ve written many breast cancer stories over the years and I’ve had the privelege of getting to know many wonderful advocates and survivors. One of the hands-down coolest: Lindsay Avner, who started Bright Pink, an organization devoted to helping women assess breast and ovarian cancer risk and take preventative measures (Guiliana Rancic is a huge supporter). Lindsay has a ton of family history (her grandmother and great grandmother died young of breast cancer within a week of each other) and at 22, Lindsay tested positive for the same genetic mutation Angelina carries, increasing her lifetime risk of breast cancer to up to 87% and ovarian cancer up to 54%. Can you even imagine? At 23 she became the youngest person in the country at the time to opt for a preventive double mastectomy. And since then she and her organization have helped hundreds of thousands of women do the same. Many of them mothers. “What is so special about a mom like Angelina Jolie’s decision to take any sort of preventive action, whether that is surgery, surveillance, or a change in lifestyle factors, is not only what she is doing for herself but also the example she is setting for her children, for the future generation,” says Lindsay. “It’s a message of strength and courage. And we all know that actions speak louder than words.” Bright Pink is an awesome resource and you can use their Assess Your Risk tool for both breast and ovarian cancers. First gather your family’s health history on both your mom and your dad’s side (“don’t forget your dad’s side,” says Lindsay, “these cancers manifest more often in women, but the males can still carry the genetic mutation, and we get 50% of our genes from mom and 50% from dad”). This information will then inform your answers on the Assess Your Risk tool, which combines that health history with lifestyle factors and provides an analysis you can save, email, and print out to bring to your doctor’s office to start working with them to create the best risk reduction plan for you. Easy, right?
Say what you will about Angelina Jolie (full disclosure: I have), but what she has done by simply sharing her experience is a HUGE gift to women everywhere. Sharing your cancer story—whether you’re an Oscar winner or just a regular writer/mom/person like me—helps people, period. It helps them cope, it helps them feel less alone, it helps educate and inform them. I hear from CML patients and survivors all the time about how comforting it was for them to find my book or my blog or my Glamour magazine column when they were diagnosed. I can’t tell you how that propels me and keeps me doing what I do (raising funds, speaking with patients, oversharing). And I’m just me. The fact that A-list, mega-star, international-goddess, mom-to-six Angelina Jolie wrote about this experience in such a big public way rocks. She will save lives. She will save mothers. She will save families. And so can you. Take a look at the piece and share with the women in your life.
10May 3rd, 2013
You may remember a post I wrote for Parenting back in March where I laid out the many reasons Nick and I were on the fence about going for the third kid. Well, I found out I was pregnant the day after writing that. So, yes, as some of you probably figured out from the way the post ended, we had already decided to at least try. Of course we had no idea it would happen so fast. We figured we’d give it six months and if it was meant to be, awesome. If not, we’d be fine. And then I got pregnant the very first month, which was shocking but also really great medically speaking. As you know, I have cancer and take a drug that keeps that cancer in remission and I have to be off of it to procreate. The plan, which my oncologist and I mapped out meticulously, was to stop Gleevec a few days before I ovulated and stay off until I either had a positive pregnancy test (in which case, I would remain off until giving birth) or until I got my period, in which case I’d go back on until I ovulated again. Going on and off the drug isn’t ideal but we wanted to limit the amount of time I’d be sans treatment completely (nine months is a long time as anyone who’s been pregnant can tell you so the idea was to add as little to that as possible). I did it this way with Nora and was pregnant on the third month but I recall some stomach issues with the stopping and starting of my hard-core drug so not having to do that was kind of awesome. So apart from just being fertile lucky, we were also cancer lucky. And I am beyond grateful. And for the first time in a long long long time, the should-we-or-shouldn’t-we-debate is off the table.
I honestly still can’t believe it. But I knew it. I was in Massachusetts for my cousin’s baby shower drinking a delicious bloody Mary thinking, what are you doing, Erin? You know you’re pregnant (I was only a day late for my period but I’m never late). Rather than pour another, I switched to water and on the way home from the weekend, I stopped at my sister Meghan’s house and peed on one of her leftover pregnancy tests and, yup, positive. So my sisters knew before Nick. I snapped a pic and texted it to him, which would have been awesome and just our laid-back-about-the-whole-thing speed, but I actually got home before he read it so I just handed him the pee stick. Romantic, right? We were both a little bit in shock and a lot happy and just…wow. And yes, I obsessed about the Bloody and the wine I drank the night before for a decent amount of time. That was exactly two months ago. But that time has flown. Seriously, the weeks have just ticked by as they tend to do when you have two little ones and a full DVR. And apart from being a little more tired and needing to pretty much eat salty snacky crap all day long (some of you picked up on my recent Goldfish and Carvel obsession), I’ve felt great. I certainly have no complaints. I have my blood drawn and shipped to Oregon (where I’ve always been followed) once a month to make sure the cancer stays at bay. So far so good. (It never came back with either of my other two pregnancies, which is why my oncologist was so quick to endorse us trying this time.)
I’m just past my first trimester; I’m due sometime late fall. Just kidding, I’m not a celebrity—I’ll tell you my due date: November 9th. Cool, right? I’ll have 20 days to get settled before I host Thanksgiving. Plenty of time! We don’t know the sex yet, but we will probably find out soon. Our doctor knows because we had the Harmony chromosome blood test done (I’m 35) but I said I didn’t want to know the sex yet when they called with the report. I just wanted to be able to share and enjoy the pregnancy news once I was out of my first trimester (even though I’ve been lucky and never had a problem, I tend to not get too excited about pregnancies until well, well into them—in all honesty, I don’t get fully excited until I see the baby). We haven’t told many people yet and so it’s just starting to feel real. It will feel really real once I hit post on this blog! Nick definitely wants to know the sex so I’m sure I’ll get talked into it sooner rather than later. Which is fine. I honestly don’t care. And I will keep you guys posted, of course.
We told the kids last night and they were predictably excited/confused/sweet/funny/ultimately uninterested. Alex, who had just gotten a buzz cut, said. “Well, a baby is more important than a haircut, right mom? So I guess that will be my optional comment at school because we’re only allowed to share one thing.” So that’s where the news stands in our house right now: It’s officially feeling real, we’re starting to tell people (obviously), the this-is-really-happening panic/excitement is setting in and the importance of this third child ranks somewhere just above a new haircut. Sounds about right. Stay tuned for much, much more!
April 12th, 2013
This is the stuff that’s been on my mind lately that, for one reason or another, didn’t make my feed. These updates would likely have been too dull, a tad mean, perhaps incriminating, TMI. But since it’s Friday and, as you’ll see, I’ve had a lot flowing through my noggin, I thought today would be a good day to unload. So here are the statuses I’ve drafted in my head but spared you from this week. Let the oversharing begin!
- Too soon, Mr. Ice Cream Man, too %$&! soon.
- I kind of wish my kids were born on dates that were easier to remember. I feel like a real idiot when I screw them up (or have to count on my hands) every single time I’m asked at the pharmacy and doctor’s office. 9/2/07? I mean, c’mon.
- A man in the bagel store this morning told me he always had a thing for redheads. My response: “I wish I had known, I would have brushed my hair before I left the house.”
- Flat everything, scallion cream cheese, large coffee. It doesn’t get any better in my book.
- Time to hide some folks.
- I have eaten my weight in goldfish this week. More on that later.
- Does anyone else watch The Mindy Project? Love, love love. Love. And the male nurse, who at first I thought would annoy me, might be my favorite.
- Is there anything better than sending a wishful last-minute text to your sitter—“any chance you’re available tonight?”—and getting this in response: “Sure! What time?” In other news, anyone want to do dinner tonight?!
- I sent Nora to school today wearing Alex’s giant transformer underwear because every single pair of hers (and she has about 40) are dirty. Guess it’s time.
- I can say with confidence that peeling a hardboiled egg is the culinary skill I lack the most. And by lack I mean my blood boils every time I start chipping away at shell and half the whites come off with it. Am I missing something?! Not a good way to start the day!
- Loved Zero Dark Thirty but mostly it made me miss Homeland.
- Does anyone else find organic peanut butter really, really—gulp—really hard to swallow? It’s yummy, but man if I don’t feel like my throat is closing when I eat it.
- Is there anything worse than when people, who shall remain nameless, go to non-bank ATMS and rack up insane fees both from the non-bank ATM and their own bank? I mean how hard is it to drive to the effing bank? (I’d tag Nick Ruddy here)
- Nora just told Alex to “shut the you-know-what up.” And by “you-know-what” I don’t mean heck. Or hell. I mean the really, really bad one. We do let the curse words slip in this house but we have never, not ever, said that phrase. Dad? Aunt Mimi?
- New neighbors about to move in. Excited to meet them; bummed to have to stop walking around naked with the curtains open in my bedroom.
- Alex is working on his speech (saying his sh words properly, specifically) and I caught him in the bathroom in front of the mirror going, “Sh Sh Shut up Nora, Sh Sh Shut up Nora.” It didn’t have the heart to stop him.
- Nora just asked me who my favorite friend at work is. Um, facebook? Jezebel? The FedEx guy?
Alright, that’s about all I got. Hope you all had a great week. If you’ve got any FB out takes you’d like to share, fire away. Happy Friday, enjoy the weekend. Talk to you next week! Oh, and I added a few more photos to the Mets dinner post. Check em out!
April 10th, 2013
I wrote a big piece for the April issue of Parenting called “The Risks and Rewards of Youth Sports.” In it I covered everything from the massive benefits sports offer our kids (better grades, more social, more confidence, less likely to do drugs, get pregnant, etc.), to injury prevention and the latest trends. But also something called “the professionalization of youth sports” which frightens me and fascinates me. You can read the whole piece here. I absolutely loved reporting this story because I’m living it right now (read the lede for a great example). The best part of my job is that I get to research and write about the things that are relevant to my life. I have learned so much about so many things as a freelance writer and I feel extremely lucky that I get paid to do this. But knowing so much also gets me a tad obsessed with things (see antibiotics), which can be an occupational hazard. And this is one story I can’t stop thinking about—or talking about with anyone who will listen.
I live in an area where youth sports are huge. And competitive. And they start young. Certainly things get competitive and kids specialize in one sport much earlier than we did in my day. I have a five- and three-year-old so we’re not in the thick of things yet, but we’re close. My five-year-old son, Alex, loves sports and, so far, seems to excel. He’s currently soccer obsessed (he wants to be Lionel Messi when he grows up) and he’s quite good…for a five year old, anyway. Nick and I adore his passion and love watching him play. But we are constantly tempering his athletic pursuits with other stuff: Playing in the backyard, fishing with his grandfather, family vacations, art, homework, down time—all of which he also loves. Sure, we could find him a travel team or get him a trainer or put him in winter camps or spend hours after school every day playing goalie for him but man if I don’t have more important things to do with my time. And I want my kid to be a kid for as long as possible which, these days, ain’t very long. I also don’t want to burn him out on a sport he loves. What would be the point, anyway? So he can get be The Best? To what end?
As any of you who are currently in the youth sports world know, my attitude is not necessarily the norm. There are people who hold their kids back from starting kindergarten just so they’ll be bigger and faster and more coordinated than their peers for sports (it’s called redshirting—read Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, it’s fascinating). Why? So you can brag to your friends that he scored the most/made the travel team/gets a college scholarship? And then what? You think he’s gonna make the Mets? Or the Knicks? Or the Giants? Don’t get me wrong, I want my kids to play sports. And I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want them to excel in whatever they do. But mostly I want them to love it. And to be well-rounded humans and to try lots of things and learn a lot and choose their own path. So that when the sports thing is over (and eventually it comes to an end—for many kids much sooner than you think), they have some life skills and other interests to fall back on.
And then there’s the selfish part of all this. I don’t want to spend my entire life schlepping to practices and games. At least not yet. I have friends who don’t go away for family vacations anymore because they’re at lacrosse or baseball tournaments…for their seven-year-olds. My sister is at baseball games all weekend during season and her son practices Friday and Saturday nights in the off-season. What the what?! I am just so not ready for that. Again, maybe I’m being naïve. Maybe once my kids are really in it to win it I will have no choice. They will beg me to be on these teams and they will love it and I will support them. I don’t know anyone—in my own circle, at least—who is pushing their kids to play against their will. The kids love this stuff. It’s their normal. But is it normal? Is it good? Are we setting them up to get burnt out? To suffer overuse injuries? To miss out on all the other good stuff childhood has to offer? These are the questions I think about as I begin signing up Alex for more and more sports. And I know Nora will be right behind him.
As I mentioned in my post for parenting, I had a bad college athletics experience and my career ended after only one year, which has definitely influenced me here but I’m not bitter, I swear (not anymore…). You might think I’m nuts talking about college already when my kids are so young, but trust me this is in the air for youth sports parents way sooner than you’d think. My quick takeaway: After many, many years of being sports obsessed, once I stopped playing and started doing other things (working for the school paper, spending more time in the art studio, doing magazine internships, making non-athlete friends, learning how to really live on my own), I realized how much of college life (and real life) there was to be lived outside of the train-train-train, win-win-win world of college athletics. And I felt very prepared for the real world, which, for most of us, doesn’t involve playing sports for a living. I was at a big program and it was intense; I know not everyone has this kind of experience, but mine has shaped me as a human and a mom in a way that I can’t deny. It’s not that I don’t want my kids to play sports in college if that’s the path they choose but trust me, I would be very happy if they opted to play club or went to a Division III school. I know a lot of my athlete friends would completely disagree with me here. And I think a lot of the more intense youth sports parents (you know the ones I’m talking about) are truly gunning for college scholarships for their kids. Check out the sidebar of the Parenting piece for the chances of that happening….
I realize that it’s easy for me to make lofty declarations since my kids are still young and we’re not in the throes of this stuff yet. Maybe I’ll be eating my words the way I did with the “I would never let my kids act like that on an airplane” thing. D’oh! I know I will eventually be sacrificing plenty of weekends to drive them to games and cheer them on and I look forward to it. Lord knows my parents were on the road constantly with me between soccer and volleyball so I’ll have no right to complain. And as long as my kids are enjoying it, I’m willing to do it. Who knows maybe one day we’ll be watching one of them on ESPN. (Nick and I have jokingly fantasized about Alex being QB for Michigan…even though we don’t plan on him playing football…nor are we Tom Brady fans, just had to clear that up).
That said, I will never, not ever, let them think that playing sports is the end-all, be-all. Or that being an athlete in any way absolves you from also being a well-rounded person, a good student and a contributing member of our family. We all knew the athletes who thought their shit didn’t stink just because they walked around in a team jersey carrying, say, a lacrosse stick. Full disclosure: I’m sure I thought my shit didn’t stink when I was playing for our high school soccer team (we were state champs and ranked No. 1 in the nation my junior year, I mean can you blame me?!). Being an athlete—and being on a winning team—is a whole lot of fun and I wouldn’t want to deny my kids that. But I want to keep it all in perspective. I know this post is a little all over the place but it’s the stuff I’ve been thinking about lately. I just worry a little. For my kids. For myself. For my sanity. I see how easy it is to get swept up in the culture of the day and I just hope I can keep one eye on land. Is this a good problem to have? Sure. My kid is healthy and athletic, cry me a river. Could my kid quit sports tomorrow and pick up the trumpet? Absolutely. Am I losing sleep over any of it? No. I just don’t ever want to lose sight of what, to me and Nick, is most important for our children. And it ain’t accumulating the most sports trophies.
Would love to hear your thoughts on this. Do your kids play sports? Are they on travel teams? Did they start young? Do you want them to play in college? Did you play in college? Has that influenced you as a youth sports parent? Have you seen the crazy competitive stuff start yet? Let’s discuss. And don’t forget to read the Parenting piece.
April 2nd, 2013
Monday night I was given the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s “Relentless for a Cure” Award at the Mets Welcome Home Dinner. It’s a gala/fundraiser the organization has every year on opening day. Half of the proceeds go to LLS and half to Katz Women’s Hospital out here on Long Island. I was being honored for my work with LLS over the past 10 years and it couldn’t have been more perfect considering what big Mets fans we all are. I still remember the thrill of being able to stay up way past our bedtime (and seeing the Mets win, of course) during the ’86 World Series. I also remember my dad’s friend Bob, a die-hard Red Sox fan, nearly having a stroke in our living room when the ball went through Bill Buckner’s legs.
The event was amazing, full of Mets old (we met Mookie Wilson, John Franco, Dwight Goodin and Ron Darling) and new. The 2013 Mets sat up on a dais and our table was directly in front of David Wright. I’m pretty sure Melissa stared at him the whole night. He was so nice and adorable and all the guys seemed really happy to be there. Melissa got up on stage to introduce me and she was nervous (she said so in her speech several times) but she did great. She said lots of nice things about me too—mentioning my Glamour column, my book, my work as a patient advocate and, of course, the big Woman of the Year win last year that so many of you helped me earn. When I got up, I thanked Melissa and then explained to everyone just how big a fan she is—her son Gregory’s middle name is Shea and, as I told Ron Darling who was right next to me, her childhood bedroom was full of his posters. Then I got into the real stuff. Here’s my speech:
11 years ago, when I was 23, I was diagnosed with chronic myelogenous leukemia. Without effective treatment I would have had as little as five years to live. But just before I was diagnosed the FDA approved a targeted drug therapy—a little pill that was putting people’s CML into remission without making them sick. It was being called a miracle drug and, for me, it was exactly that. Within a year of starting treatment, my leukemia was in remission. Unfortunately, just a year after my diagnosis, my sister, Melissa, who you just heard from, was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. She was 27 and seven months pregnant at the time. There was no miracle drug for Melissa so she endured months of chemotherapy and radiation and then, a year later, she relapsed and had to go through it all over again, this time leaving her then 10-month-old son for a month so she could move into Sloan Kettering for a stem-cell transplant.
Our family has been through a lot, but we have so much to be grateful for. Today, thanks to groundbreaking and life-saving treatments, Melissa and I are both doing incredibly well. We are healthy, happy and we have five beautiful children between us children we never thought possible when we first heard the words “you have cancer.” (The baby Melissa was pregnant with when she was diagnosed, who got chemo before he was born, is now a whip-smart 4th-grader and star of his baseball team—he wants to play for the METS, naturally).
And despite what we’ve been through, we feel incredibly lucky. We are incredibly lucky. We are not only surviving, we are thriving. And that’s why I’ll never stop raising awareness and funds and giving back to LLS, the organization that has given us so much. LLS funds research for groundbreaking cancer drugs but it also takes care of patients and their families with incredible support services. Melissa and I have benefitted tremendously from LLS’s work and we want to say thank you. And, more importantly, we want to help others. We need to keep fighting for a cure and for new and better treatment options because we all know that not everyone is as lucky as my family has been. But I also know that it’s possible…
Gleevec, the drug I still take every day that keeps my cancer in remission, was approved by the FDA just six months before I was diagnosed. Before Gleevec, the survival rate for my type of leukemia was 55 %. Today, thanks to Gleevec, the survival rate is 95 %. The drug was developed with funds from LLS, funds that came from generous people like you. My sister and I are living proof that your dollars really will save lives. So on behalf of our parents and husbands, who are sitting right there, and our beloved children who are home with sitters so we could have a good time tonight, thank you. Thank you to The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society for this amazing award, to the entire Mets organization and to all of you for being here tonight. And let’s go mets!
My job for the night was not just to accept the award but to share LLS’s mission and why it’s so important to keep fighting for a cure. After the speeches, we ate, mingled, bid on silent auction stuff and met the Mets. They are all so nice and were so appreciative and supportive and, um, hot. I’ve got to say it, those boys are handsome. Full disclosure: I’ve always had a thing for baseball players (just ask my college roommates). At the end of the night, Nick and I “won” a David Wright-signed bat and a Lauren Merkin bag, respectively—and by “win” I mean be paid good money, but it all went to a good cause (my cause!) and now we have an awesome sixth birthday present for Alex (the bat; the bag is mine).
It was a great night and I’m so honored and excited about my award. And so pumped for the Mets season! We could really use a good one this year, right? I’m hopeful as always. Here are a few more pictures (and there are more good ones coming so check back later!)…
March 29th, 2013
The temperature has finally been above freezing this week in New York, which means many awesome things including the start of spring cleanup. As you probably heard—or experienced—we in the northeast were the recipients of apocalyptic-type weather last fall/winter. From Sandy to Nemo and plenty of fun in between, we—and our yards—took a serious beating. And now it’s time to pick up the pieces. Nick and I have been spending some time outside accessing the damage. We were lucky to only have lost a few trees and bushes but there’s still a lot of crap to be picked up and some sad-looking spruces to be put out of their misery. But in the midst of all this death and destruction, I found some life. Leafy green, delicious life…
Sitting in my garden, among the twisted dead vines and crunched up leaves, was a big bunch of kale and three bunches of spinach—I guess I had never harvested them in the craziness of fall (um, Sandy) and the fearless greens managed to grow and survive during some of the worse weather we’ve ever seen in these parts. At one point my garden was under nearly three feet of snow! My garden guru and friend Elizabeth came by to check things out a few days ago and talk about expanding (we’re adding another box!) and she explained how when crops like these live through the winter (“over-wintered greens”) they actually get sweeter—and they’re still edible. And so I ate them! We had two delicious salads this week courtesy of my backyard and nothing gets me more pumped for spring than that. And so in honor of the season and warmer weather and Easter weekend and celebrating new life, I wanted to share these two quick and easy, healthy and yummy superfood salad recipes. I made these with just the stuff I had in my house but you could add more or get more elaborate depending on what you love. These definitely kick-started my salad fetish, which I needed. It’s been a looooong winter but it seems like spring is here to stay. Enjoy!
Quick Spinach Salad with Bacon and Mushrooms
Wash and dry the spinach, tear into pieces. Top with thinly-sliced mushrooms (white or baby bella work well), thinly-sliced red onion, chopped bacon and a simple vinaigrette (I didn’t use the bacon drippings to make a proper spinach salad dressing because, well, I had already eaten bacon for breakfast and enough is enough). Dressing (there will be leftovers): whisk together one teaspoon dijon mustard (or more depending on your preference), about a quarter cup red wine vinegar, a pinch of kosher salt and cracked black pepper then whisk in about half a cup (or less depending on how vinegary you like your dressing) extra virgin olive oil. I don’t measure when I make dressing–you can always add more of something to balance it out if needed.
Quick Kale Caesar Salad
Wash and dry the kale, remove the hard ribs, then chop into thin strips, almost like you’re shredding it. Toss with a quick Caesar dressing (or a more elaborate one if you have time) and anything else you have around–grilled chicken, homemade croutons, roasted squash, apples, whatever. My dressing, which served one: whisk together about half a chopped garlic clove (fine), freshly grated parmesan cheese (I used about an eighth of a cup because it’s all I had), juice from half a small lemon, a pinch of Kosher salt, cracked black pepper and about an eighth of a cup of extra virgin olive oil. I topped with a few shaves of the remaining parm which, PS, is quite possibly my favorite thing in the world.
Happy eating, happy holidays, happy weekend, happy spring!