An Introduction and Excerpts from Hanging Out With Lab Coats: Hope, Humor, and Help for Cancer Patients and Their Caregivers
Submitted by: Wendi Fox Pedicone
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I'm a what? An author? Oh yeah, I'm an author!
When I was diagnosed with breast cancer in August of last year, my world consisted of surgery, treatments, emotional issues, and the need for information. I got busy fighting cancer - or "the invader," as I call it. Can you recall a time when you showed up at work, school, or an event with a physical ailment (a broken finger, crutches, stitches) and nearly every person who saw you asked, "What happened to you?" Knowing they were expressing more than just curiosity, and that they were expressing empathy and concern, you told them. But it became tiring to repeat the same details to every person. I felt that way when I got cancer. As a person who is re-energized by people, I needed to stay connected to those who cared about me without letting them distract me from the war I was waging against my disease. Friends, family, and colleagues who cared about me sent cards, gifts, and food, and contacted me to express their love and concern. I wanted to talk with them when they called, as well as acknowledge their good deeds and keep them informed about my progress, but time would not allow that to occur. Instead, I began writing and sending email updates to compensate for my limited availability. The updates formed the foundation for a book, Hanging Out With Lab Coats: Hope, Humor, and Help for Cancer Patients and Their Caregivers.
At first, my updates were a few paragraphs that included information about my treatments and prognosis. As I traveled my cancer treatment journey I became increasingly enmeshed in my battle and my updates reflected my emotional journey. I'd explain the medical side of my treatments, and added my feelings about them, e.g., what it felt like to receive chemo. I shared my not-so-hopeful thoughts as well as my optimistic ones. The updates took on a sort of big-picture-of-my-day-to-day-life focus, like how my husband managed having a partner who was a cancer patient, home events that occurred in spite of cancer, and things my teenage daughters and three-year-old son did or said to me.
It wasn't long before recipients of my updates began telling me, "Do you know how well you write? No. We laugh and cry with you. Really? You should write a book! No way. We feel like we are inside your head and living this journey right along with you." So, I compiled all the original messages, added in a ton of information I found as I went through my experiences, and found that I had written the book. It is partly a gift of gratitude to every single person who became part of my cancer journey and told me I was inspirational, as well as a gift of true help and guidance to those who are or will be walking a cancer path.
During my battle, I was researching and collecting huge amounts information that seemed too useful to store in binders, a box in my closet, and on my computer. As an ordinary person, not a sports figure or celebrity, I wondered who would be interested in my story. Then it hit me: make it a self-help book for the hundreds or thousands of people in need! And it is. I've written over 170 tips, and included resources (websites, organizations, books, pamphlets, toll free numbers, etc.) and nutrition information. I wove in plenty of support and complementary therapy advice, too. It is about facing fears, making decisions, living day-to-day, discovering comedy in unlikely situations and ultimately emerging triumphant.
It is also a story of hope and humor.
People tell me they are giving the book as gifts to loved ones with cancer, caregivers of loved ones with
cancer, medical professionals, advocates of complementary therapies, and people who need a large dose
of inspiration. Wow! I am humbled.
Dr. Bernie Seigel, renowned author of Love, Medicine and Miracles, and Help Me to Heal, endorsed Hanging Out With Lab Coats, says, "This is a book written by an inspired person and a true survivor."
"As if breast cancer could be an enjoyable topic, the author's talent of weaving her personal struggles with practical advice and humor makes the memoir a pleasure to read and a wonderful resource for breast cancer patients and their families," says John H. Molloy, CEO of Imaginis Corporation and this website, Imaginis.com.
I encourage you to go to www.foxpress.com and read more about my continued journey as a cancer survivor (hint: I am now in stage IV of my disease, living well, and feeling truly excellent). Also, you can order the book through Imaginis.com at http://www.imaginis.com/bookstore/.
If you are newly diagnosed with cancer, learning to live with cancer, are a cancer caregiver, or a "lab coat" (medical professional) my wishes for you are to consider reading Hanging Out With Lab Coats or giving it to a loved one in need, and for God to bless you and help you through trying times.
I invite you to read excerpts from the book (below).
Love to all,
Wendi Fox Pedicone
Breast Cancer Survivor and Author of Hanging Out With Lab Coats
From CHAPTER ONE, How Long's This Been Here?
I am given a black marker so I can place an X on the breast that is getting the excisional biopsy (aka lumpectomy). Doesn't "lumpectomy" sound like a fabricated word by someone attempting to speak surgi-talk, in the same way a person who doesn't know Spanish might attempt to communicate with a Spanish-speaking person by saying something hokey like, "Can I use your cell phon-o?" or "I have a flat tire-o." Hmmm. On second thoughtï¿½ "Lumpectomy" sounds like when a person describes a sickness from sitting a lot and they call it "butt-er-itus."
[Later] Dan drives me home and makes a few phone calls. I call my mother. She's eighty-two. I take her to the beauty salon every week to have her hair done. "Hey Mom, what's up? Oh nothing, just lying on the couch. I had some outpatient surgery today. No big deal. I'm fine. Sure, I'll take you to the hairdresser tomorrow, regular time. See you then." No sense worrying her.
My mom. She is one half of a parental partnership who raised me with love and a measure of frugality. She is outgoing, big-hearted and a good sport. Mom enjoys surprising people with happy things. She also doesn't mind being the center of [my siblings and my] pranks. I have a plethora of wonderful childhood memories because of her. One is bike riding on the boardwalk in Wildwood, New Jersey on warm vacation mornings, and another one is home made eggnog. She would crack an egg and pour several ingredients into a special container, and then make me giggle by shaking her buttï¿½and the container.
When Dad passed away, Dan and I invited her to live with us. She declined. It's just as well, I suppose. Had she lived with us, [my husband, kids, and I] would all be converted to believing that our toilet paper rolls were on backwards and that the best way to walk the stairs is to do it with our legs wide apart so we don't wear the carpet in the center.
Later in the evening, our neighbor, Cammy, is outside wearing summertime attire and she walks over to catch up with Dan. He is doing yard work. Cammy and her husband, Bob, have a daughter named Kala who is a best friend to our daughter, Michele. Through Kala, Cammy knew I had surgery. Dan proceeds to tell her about my biopsy. Racing into the house and looking frazzled, he says, "You know how when you are talking about a body part you tend to look at that body part?"
"If you're describing something about your ankle to someone, you look at their ankle. Right?"
"Well, Cammy must think I'm a louse because I was telling her about your surgery and realized I was staring at her breasts the entire the time. He might not have been embarrassed if she were older and less attractive, but she is our age, looks ten years younger, is extremely attractive, resembles Paula Abdul and, oh by the way, has fabulous cleavage. The first time I met her I said, "Those can't be real."
The next day, Dan calls her on the phone and apologizes. I swear I can hear her laughter being carried by the summer breeze into my kitchen.
From CHAPTER TWO, Diagnosis: Breast Cancer
It's 3:50 and I park my vehicle in front of Dr. M's office. I see Dan's vehicle. How wonderful, he's already here. Oh boy, do I love his dependability. We go into the examining room. I undress from the waist up. Diane and Dr. M smile when they enter the room. Dr. M peels the tape from the incision under the nipple of my left breast. He does a post-surgical site inspection and comments on how nicely the incision is healing. He places new tape over the top of the cut and offers his hand so I can sit up. I realize that I'd forgotten about my cancer fear. I'll just get dressed and we'll go. Dr. M places his hand on mine, looks into my eyes and says, "We found cancer. Get dressed and I'll meet you in the next room." With that, he walks out. I guess after twenty years of doing this, he found that delivering the news quickly and walking out is best.
I become conscious that Diane is already gone from the examining room. Where did she go? When did she leave? Dan and I are the only ones in the room. I am watching myself as an out-of-body-experience. I go about my usual routine of changing the table paper (my mother taught me to always make my bed). I stop, look at Dan and say, "Are you okay? I can't get a deep breath." In through the nose. Ffffff. Out through the mouth, fffffssshhh. He doesn't answer. He is blankly staring straight ahead.
I don't know how, but I am dressed. We are walking into a room that has a couch, chairs, lamps and a coffee table. My eyes become fixated on the breast cancer pamphlets arranged on the coffee table. They knew. They all knew. They all knew before I did. They prepared this stuff for me. They watched me walk in...knowing that I have breast cancer. What did they think when they saw me? Did they feel sorry for me? Did they put their heads down and did each give me a 'tch, tch, tch, poor thing', under her breath? I feel betrayed. Suddenly, the doctor is sitting on the couch. I don't remember how he got here. Did he walk in with us, or after us? Dan and I are on either side of him. I am missing in-between details. It's like we are moving under a strobe light, one moment we are in the exam room, then I see literature on the table, the next we are sitting with the doctor.
I would later realize that betrayal was an unfounded reactionï¿½how obtuse.
For the next half hour, the doctor slowly and carefully takes us through information and explanations. "You have two kinds of breast cancer; invasive ductal carcinoma (ID) and ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS)ï¿½when we removed the tumor we couldn't get clear margins." I have what? TWO kinds of cancer? HelloOOoo, are there any long straws in the house? Am I pulling all the short ones, or what? He draws and writes on lined paper as he talks. At some point, I sit on the coffee table to face him. "Please, doctor, I can't concentrate any more on what you are saying. I have a couple of questions in my brain that are stealing my focus from what you are telling us." He obliges me, gives me time to ask my questions and answers each one. My first question was, "Did I do something wrong?"
"No," he said, "but you live in Delaware and Delaware has a high breast cancer rate." Dan is sitting, silent.
From CHAPTER THREE, Mastectomy First, Chemotherapy Second
I am at home and wearing comfy clothes. Totally relaxed, I am having a no-make-up-who-cares-how-I-look day. Dan stops home to grab a bite to eat and check in on me. He looks at me from head to toe and says, "So, are you just giving up? Are you throwing in the towel? I guess you're going to just lay down and die from cancer, right?" You've got to be kidding me. I look that bad?
I realize in an instant that this is simply an expression of his fear. He is expressing his fear to me, his wife and friend. He forgets that I'm also the cancer patient. My pillar of strength has sounded his alarm. I think I'm a little less brave than I was five minutes ago.
He and I may, down the line, need some support or counseling to get us through this.
- Tip 53 Caregivers, you can't be the be-all, end-all for your loved one. Get support.
- Tip 54 Look in the phone book, call a cancer center near you and check with your doctors' offices for nearby support centers that offer cancer patients and caregivers information, education and creative opportunities, such as nutrition sessions and stress reduction programs. These are just as helpful as support group discussions.
- Tip 55 Check for local cancer support avenues, particularly ones that are run by professionals (very important). For example, the Wellness Community in Delaware offers free professional support to people whose lives have been touched by cancer who live within driving distance. They offer support group sessions, specialized sessions by topic, cooking classes, and complementary therapies like yoga and Reiki, and so much more. With any Wellness Community, there are no boundaries; everyone dealing with cancer in some way is welcome (cancer patients, relatives, friends and caregivers). The Delaware locations serve nearby states; New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Maryland. You can check www.wellnesscommunity.org or call 877-892-9355 to determine if the ones in Delaware can help you. Alternatively, visit the national website: www.wellnesscommunity.org and you will find a list of twenty-two cities across the country where Wellness Communities exist (as of January, 2005).
- Tip 56 Go to the library or bookstore and read anything by Bernie S. Siegel, M.D. (Love, Medicine & Miracles, Prescriptions for Living, and Help Me To Heal.) He is a retired general/pediatric surgeon who is now involved in humanizing medical care and medical education. Additionally, buy his CD called Getting Ready by Hay House, Inc. There are three sections of a series of visualization exercises to help you mentally prepare. I listened to two of them over and over; Getting Ready for Chemotherapy, and Getting Ready for Radiation. There is also one for surgery. I would have listened to this section too had I known about the CD in September. Hay House CDs are not intended as substitutes for medical care, but they are powerful, energizing and life-changing tools to supplement your care. Louise Hay, the founder, has all kinds of self-help books, workshops, and opportunities to offer. For a free catalogue call 800-654-5126 in the USA or visit www.hayhouse.co.uk (UK), www.hayhouse.com.au (Australia) or write to firstname.lastname@example.org (South Africa). Dr. Siegel's books and CDs are also comforting for caregivers. My husband listened to the CD, and my daughter Andrea read excerpts from one of his books.
From CHAPTER FOUR, Chemotherapy: AdriamycinÂ® and CytoxanÂ®
In an e-mail update dated October 14, 2004 I wrote:
Under my wig, I have hair stubble from when the girls shaved my head. So far, I can detect only a hint of a receding hairline. A tiny bit of fear creeps in; if the chemo hasn't made my hair fall out, has it reached the cancer in my body? Trust science and chemotherapy Wendiï¿½move on to positive thoughts. I smile whenever I think back on my wig-buying experience. I was told to "see the oriental guy at the Farmer's Market." We went to the market in New Castle and inquired about the location of the wig shop. Andrea and I went in the shop while Dan kept Danny busy in a toy store nearby. At the time, I was getting around with a walker. I am certain I looked pathetic and old. Once inside the shop, we were having fun trying on long, blonde wigs when suddenly we heard a loud voice, "YOU CHEMO PATIENT?" The walker must've been the giveaway.
"I, ah, will be soon," I answered.
"You come back in fifteen minute," he said, "Somebody already here," he added. Before I had the chance to leave he was touching my head and face while staring into space. "Hmmm, you have very small head, yehhh, come back, I fix you up." As we walked out I heard once more, "You come back in fifteen minute."
When we returned, he took us behind a partition and motioned for me to sit in front of the mirror. We grimaced when he showed us a wig. "No," I said, "it's too short, too close to my face and not the color I am looking for."
I sat in a beauty chair in front of a mirror while Andrea and selected several hairpieces. The Asian man was nearby and quiet. We then came upon a very nice, short styled, reddish blonde wig. "Dats first one I show you!" He said excitedly (and loudly - yeesh, Andrea nearly dropped it when he spoke up). "Red is very nice new color, many women in New York City wearing red now." He obviously knew what he was talking about. By the time we left, I had a wig and accessories and knowledge of the dos and don'ts of synthetic hair care. I will always remember, fondly, the direct yet kind Asian man nodding his head as we exited his shop saying, "You be alright, you be fine, be strong, good luck."
One recent morning, one of my daughters, Michele, was about to leave for school. I got out of bed hurriedly to tell her something. Now, keep in mind that upon rising, it takes me awhile to stand up straight due to the surgical work on my torso. It has gotten better, but I get stiff in the mornings. This particular morning, there was no time to waste; I was certain she was about to leave. I didn't think to put something on my head. I stood hunched over in the shadows and poked my head out of my bedroom door. I still laugh out loud when I recall her sleepy but startled reaction. Think about a time when you were a kid and you jumped from the darkness to scare someone and you'll laugh too. "Michele," I called. Her head swiftly turned upward. In her underwear she did this arms-flailing kind of thing and a sort of hop-skip-jump across the hall and into the bathroom. "Geeeeez, God, Mom!" I could practically hear her heavy breathing from where she stood in the bathroom. Oh, it was golden. Ahhhhh, I must've looked like a little alien standing in the dark hallway. I'm still grinning... Oh, and she's probably gonna hate me for writing about that.
From CHAPTER SEVEN, Life After Cancer
In an e-mail update dated April 18, 2004 I wrote:
...So, Monday April 4 was the beginning of my new-regular life. Yesss. I need to feel pieces of ordinary again. On that morning, Dan left for work, the girls kissed me good-bye and headed for school, and little Danny and I got ourselves ready for the day. I was weepy while doing so - not a sad weepy, a wonderfully sentimental weepy. Returning to work was a momentous occasionï¿½a huge milestone. I felt like doing "TA DA" out loud! Hmmm, can I do "TA DA"? It feels a little self-serving. Shouldn't I be more humble? Hmmm. Dare I say it? Sure, why not.
...As for my future, I will...
- Forgive myself for my wrong doings, and hope others forgive me also
- Pay forward the love and encouragement I received (and continue to receive)
- Advocate at the top of my lungs about how to survive and live with a life-threatening illness
- Be reminiscent of the need to appreciate life (and help others to do the same)
- Try not to waste time worrying about things I cannot change
- Do cool things with my daughters that will be unique to each
- Play with Danny instead of saying, "Mommy doesn't feel well today"
- Spend healthy-time with my husband - the man who has been waiting patiently in the sidelines for expressions of my love and attention - and love him like I am in an epic romance novel, with flowing hair and heaving breasts
- Let God help me manage my life
- Gladly celebrate my one-year cancer anniversary, and two-year non-recurrence and five-year survival goals
- Joyfully celebrate my next milestone birthday: My 50th. Instead of thinking that a birthday brings me one year closer to death, I will see it as one more year I cheated it
- Not worry too long before investigating an unusual health symptom
- Shout hooray when a health symptom is not cancer and turns out to be something really small by comparison, like bronchitis, a liver infection, arthritis or a broken bone
- Not feel guilt when I buy expensive gifts for people, leave large tips for wait staff and dip into the retirement fund for vacations
- Breathe in the scent of flowers like I am sensing their perfume for the very first time
- Enjoy the benefits of a rainy or stormy day as well as a sunny one
- Sing in the shower, dance and say, Ta Da!
- Treat myself gently and take good care of me, because your warm thoughts will stay with me for the rest of my life
Finally, I have decided to view each birthday as a curtain call - and I expect to have many. How does a performer feel when he has given the performance of his life and is called out for numerous curtain calls? I vow to find out. So, this year on June 15, I will celebrate my forty-sixth birthday and my first curtain call. I will listen for the applause from within my heart and take a very deep bow.
In closing, pause for a moment and imagine yourself standing up. Next, imagine me standing by your side. It is with joyful tears in my eyes and a lump in my throat that I close this update. I wish you life's joys, enlightenment and clarity, and many curtain calls of your own. Enjoy the applause that you deserve and life has to offer. As for me, I will never forget the discoveries I made during my cancer journey, the extraordinary lessons I learned along the way, and the incredible outpouring of love and support I received.
Very gratefully yours,
Breast Cancer Survivor
CHAPTER NINE, Friends and Family: In Retrospect
Some people who were part of my journey graciously penned their thoughts in retrospect after my ordeal was over:
- Sue, a friend a colleague
- Donna, a pharmacy technician at the store that fills my prescriptions, tells me what it's like to work at a pharmacy and know that one of your customers has cancer
- Mary, a colleague, who was part of my journey
- Jim, a communications professional, whom I previously worked with and was collaborating with me on a project on the morning of September 11, 2001 - He became my friend and eventually a FoxPress colleague
- Sharry, Kayla H's grandmother (Kayla is a teenager who lost her mother to cancer when she was only eight months old)
- Sheri, Danny's daycare provider (Danny is my son who was three when I was diagnosed)
- Dan (my wonderful husband), and Christine, Andrea, and Michele (our teenage daughters)
A woman is like a tea bag. You never know how strong she is until she's in hot water.
Eleanor Roosevelt, America's Most Influential First Lady and wife of 32nd President, Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1884 - 1962)
Quote can be found at the beginning of the book on page 7.
To order Hanging Out with Lab Coats, please visit http://www.imaginis.com/bookstore/.
Updated: January 20, 2009