Cancer Essays

I Married A Doctor. He Left Me When I Got Sick.

Just because you married a doctor doesn't mean your marriage can survive cancer, but it can show you who you really married.

I was a divorced, thirty-seven-old nurse on a New York City psych unit when a handsome doctor with thick dark hair introduced himself. He was six years my junior and winked at me because I couldn’t pronounce his Greek last name correctly. He was incredibly smart, graduating at the top of his Ivy League university with a free ride to medical school. Our lives felt full with purpose when we worked with the chronically mentally ill population.  We listened to indie rock bands like “Built to Spill” or “Yo La Tengo”. We had nachos delivered from our East Village Mexican joint while we played Scrabble. For every one of his, “sesquipedalian”, I’d come back with something like “dog”. Laughing hysterically, I’d say: “But, it’s not fair you speak Greek.”

Six months later, we tied the knot in a small ceremony at city hall in downtown Manhattan. Six months doesn’t seem like a long time to date someone before getting married, but whirlwind romances ran in my family. Fifty years ago, my parents went on their first date on New Year’s Eve and were married by April. They are still together; if it worked for them, why couldn’t it work for us?

Honeymoon Diagnosis

But newlywed bliss was a short-lived thing. A month after our wedding, I got a stomach pain. Seeking help, I was continually dismissed with condescending comments. Believing my pain was psychosomatic, a physician told me to see a psychiatrist. I felt betrayed, because my husband agreed: “You’re being crazy. I’m a doctor and I’m telling you there’s nothing wrong with you.”

My husband agreed: “You’re being crazy. I’m a doctor and I’m telling you there’s nothing wrong with you.”

Almost a year to the day of our first anniversary, I collapsed at work.  An emergency appendectomy eventually revealed a rare stage 4 abdominal tumor. As weird as it sounds for someone just diagnosed with a cancer that could kill them within 12 months, I felt validated that I was right; at least I wasn’t a hypochondriac.

I had one chance at survival, according to my oncologist: an experimental, brutal surgery where heated chemotherapy would be poured directly into my abdomen. I wanted to live, so I went for it. It took 10 hours and I lost most of my non-essential organs. In the ICU, a ventilator kept me alive. When I awoke my husband and my mom were there. I looked at the tubes poking out of my skin and staples from my breastbone to my pelvis, relieved that at the very least, the two people I loved most were there.

The surgeon explained the cancer was more aggressive then he’d suspected. In his Colombian accent, he told me, “I’ve done my part, now you do yours. You stay alive. Laugh as much as possible: hat’s your only job.”

Laugh? I could barely breathe.

An attractive 37-year-old woman in a black dress and strapped sandals with a tattoo on her left arm poses in front of a fence and a white house in New Orleans.

Liz Montgomery before her cancer diagnosis.

My mother stayed with me. My husband needed to get back to work. I didn’t want him to leave, but I accepted it: we had bills to pay.

My Lonely Recovery

For the next two weeks, I hardly saw him, but he picked me up when it was time for me to be discharged.

The drive home was merciless. Every bump in the road felt like I was being shanked. We pulled over six times because I was so nauseous. He had to go to work the next day and became frustrated at the length of the trip.

That was the first of many tip-offs that my husband was just not going to offer me the support and level of care I needed during my recovery. Soon, my mom called. ““Liz, you need to come stay with me and dad to recover,” my mom said. He didn’t object and I didn’t question her judgment.

That was the first of many tip-offs that my husband was just not going to offer me the support and level of care I needed during my recovery.

Soon, I was recuperating at my parent’s New Jersey, fifty-five and older community. I slept upright on my parent’s couch. Their house felt like a nursing home, or as my older brother called it, a waiting room for heaven.

I was on methadone, morphine, and fentanyl to quell my pain. My 72-year-old Irish Catholic mother comforted me until I fell asleep. She lifted me up with her frail arms to bathe me. When clumps of my jet-black hair remained, she shaved my head. Unable to eat, I needed intravenous feedings.

While my husband continued on with his life in NYC, mine felt like it was coming to an agonizingly slow end.

Friends called but I was too weak to speak. In moments of lucidity I remembered my life as a fun, fit nurse before the operation. My body felt like a shell holding my soul hostage. My spouse visited on weekends. My mom liked to put blush on my cheeks to prepare for his visit: “There now you look great.” He’d arrive excited to tell me stories about the hospital, but I wasn’t good company. The narcotics took over and like a heroin addict I’d pass out mid-sentence.

In moments of lucidity, I missed my husband and our Scrabble games. So still unable to care for myself, and against my parents advice, I returned home to be with him, our dog and three cats. After an MRI declared me cancer free, my so-called remission still included hospitalizations, bowel obstructions, infections and more tube feedings.  A home health nurse visited twice a week.

While my husband continued on with his life in NYC, mine felt like it was coming to an agonizingly slow end.

Too medicated to play games, we watched Dexter on Showtime in an attempt to find commonality again. Halfway in I’d fall asleep. One night, as he fought back tears he said, “I’m so sorry I didn’t believe you. I’m a doctor and I didn’t do anything.” We cried together.

The Collapse

My husband encouraged me to get back to nursing. Ignoring my instincts, I agreed. I wanted to prove to both of us that I was getting better, so I pushed myself. My fellow nurses welcomed me back. Weighing 90 pounds at 5’7”, wisps of baby hair covered with a scarf, I hid my feeding tube with a black armband. I was embarrassed by the way I looked, and perpetually exhausted, but I cared for my patients every bit as diligently as my husband had failed to care for me.

After my first shift ended, I was excited to share my accomplishment of making it through the day. Opening the door to my apartment, my animals ran to greet me. Someone else was waiting to greet me too. Sitting in our green, velour, armless chair, my husband wore an old band T-shirt, cargo shorts, and flip-flops.

Liz Montgomery, fighting for her life after being diagnosed with a stage IV abdominal tumor.

Without looking at me, he said simply: “I can’t do this, I can’t handle being married anymore.”

He stood up and walked out.

Shocked, I didn’t follow him. On my short walk to the bedroom, I noticed all of his stuff was gone.

That night, too stunned and tired to even process what had happened, I watched Bridget Jones Diary on DVD, swallowed my medication and fell asleep.

Without looking at me, he said simply: “I can’t do this, I can’t handle being married anymore.”

In the morning, the realization of abandonment felt like a weight on my chest. I called him repeatedly, but he didn’t answer. My mom rushed over, moving in for weeks to help me heal emotionally. She begged me to not think about him, fearing stress would cause my illness to return. Attempting to comfort me, she said: “Liz, try and rest. You will find a way through this, you always do.”

To Have And To Hold

I worked when I was able. One day, I bumped into my ex at the hospital. He said. “Please let it go, we haven’t been a real couple since you were diagnosed.” He then told me he had a girlfriend.

His lips kept moving after that but I couldn’t hear what he was saying because I’ve never hated anyone more than I did in that moment. I could understand that our union was too young for him to endure my illness and the time apart, but I couldn’t fathom how anyone, especially my husband, a doctor could lack such compassion.

I grieved the loss of my organs and my marriage. Eventually, my mother went home leaving me a yellow post-it note saying: “Liz, you are NEVER alone. Love, Mom.”

As time passed, my sadness dissipated. I went out with friends and to therapy. The fantasy I had of my parent’s high-speed romance had influenced my rush down the aisle. Now it was clear I had scarcely known him. But I don’t blame myself: I may have been naive marrying someone I only knew for six months, but years later, I still don’t understand how anyone—let alone a doctor with years of training to handle the chronically ill–could so incapable of fulfilling the vows he had made to me: “to love, comfort, honor, and keep me in sickness and in health.”

Cancer didn’t kill me, so I sure as hell wouldn’t let a broken marriage.

Regardless, I eventually realized that was his problem, and not mine. My problem was getting better, and so I stopped wasting time thinking about him, and spent more time focusing on my well-being. Cancer didn’t kill me, so I sure as hell wouldn’t let a broken marriage.

But sometimes it still stings when I hear about him, and his work today as a member of a groundbreaking cancer anxiety research team. I hope he treats his patients with more compassion than he did his wife.

Cancer Essays

My Grandmother’s Gift As My Father Lay Dying

For #GriefAwarenessDay, the story of how a grandmother's love comforted both the grieving and the dying across two generations.

It’s the day before my father will die.

He’s in a hospital bed in the intensive care unit, hooked up to machines monitoring his vitals signs, with a light so bright hanging directly over him that I must force myself to think of things other than tunnels and what lies at the end of them.

I am 29-years-old. I am the oldest of five girls. I am a wife and a new mother.

I am a daughter so afraid of losing her father that I have convinced myself that I will not.

My Father’s Last Words

A middle-aged Latino man wearing a suit and his Latina daughter, wearing a wedding a dress on her wedding day.

My father and I on the day of my wedding in 2002.

A decade later, I often wish I could go back and tell my younger self to stay by his side and tell him I love him, because there will be no tomorrow for he and I. But on the day before my father dies, I am full of hope. I believe he will come home and we will all laugh and give my dad a hard time for so obviously needing to be the center of attention. He will laugh during this exchange, because he and I share a sense of humor. His eyes will twinkle. And we will all breathe in the knowledge that everything is as it should be again.

My mother-in-law is sitting behind me on my father’s hospital bed. She and my father always had a good time teasing and making each other laugh. I am glad for her company. My father is awake, but intubated, so having her there to bounce off my seemingly one-sided conversation provides a much-needed sense of normalcy.

She watches with me as my father blinks, opens his eyes, and focuses them above us. His eyes stay focused on that empty space for a few moments before they come down to meet mine. His lips are moving now, but the tubes make it impossible for him to speak.

I watch his lips as they move, willing myself to understand.

My Grandmother’s Funeral

When  I was 13, my dad got me a job bussing tables at the Mexican restaurant where he had moonlighted as a waiter since I was born. Every Friday and Saturday afternoon for three years, I drove with him there and back, passing the time on our 45-minute-ride to talk as father and daughter.

During one of those rides, I remember him asking me once if I ever felt like my grandmother’s spirit was still with me. He told me that he was sure his mother was watching over him and me, her only son and first grandchild, because of the special connection she had shared with each of us.

That was when I told him about Guela’s funeral.

My parents and I lived with Guela and Guelo for the first three years of my life. My grandmother spoiled me, the fiercest defender and most adoring acolyte of my toddler antics. We were so close, I called her ‘mom’ and my actual mother by her first name, Dorothy.

“Goodnight, Guela,” I whispered. It would be years before I understood I should have said “goodbye” instead

Guela died when I was six, meaning my father was just 26 when his mother died. To the funeral, my sisters and I wore the pink, puffy-sleeved dresses Guela had just bought for our portrait session at JC Penny. None of us realized we were at a funeral; I assume everybody is whispering because Guela is sleeping. It would be rude to wake her up.

Before we left, my mother lifted me high enough to kiss Guela’s cold cheek. As I kissed her prettily painted face, I thought I saw my grandmother’s lips curve into a peaceful smile. It didn’t alarm me: it’s the kind of smile I’ve seen since on my my own daughter’s face when I kiss her in her sleep… a smile caught somewhere between dream and sunrise.

“Goodnight, Guela,” I whispered. It would be years before I understood I should have said “goodbye” instead. But I truly believed she was just sleeping; that she had smiled as I kissed her.

As I told my father this, he nodded, taking in my words.

“I believe you,” he said. “She watches over both of us.”

A little Latina girl, less than a year old, posing with a bearded Latino man in glasses, wearing a 'Coolest Dad' sweatshirt.

One of my favorite pictures of my father and my daughter together.

What My Father Saw

On the day before he dies, my father desperately wants to make me understand what he sees above the bed.

He points upward again.

Sighing, I reach for my water bottle and offer him a sip. He closes his eyes in frustration, weakly shaking his head. Then he raises his right arm as high as he can and points once more. His imploring eyes find mine again; I ask if the light is too bright. He shakes his head no, raising his arm to point at it again. His lips move, forming the same shape over and over. I feel like I’ve failed him. I’m supposed to know this word, I think. The way he looks at me, the way his face falls with every realization that I do not understand tells me that I should.

I don’t know he won’t wake up again, so I should have kissed him goodbye instead.

My mother-in-law suggests I ask the night nurse for a pen and a notebook, so I leave and return, pen and paper in hand, only to discover he is too weak to write. He is only able to form the main curve of what I will realize later is a ‘G’, and nothing more.

“We should go,” she says. “He needs to rest.”

I kiss my father on his cheek, tell him that I love him, tell him that I will see him tomorrow. I don’t know he won’t wake up again, so I should have kissed him goodbye instead. Instead, I go home, climb into bed with my husband and six-month-old daughter, and dream a dreamless sleep, never suspecting I’ll never speak to my father again.

Guela’s Gift

But I know now that my mother-in-law had suspected what he was trying to say. She told me later that when I was out of the room, she asked him if there was someone he could see,

His eyes told her yes.


The word I hadn’t understood him mouthing was my grandmother’s nickname. And by telling me he could see her during those last moments of his life, he was trying to assure me that he was right.

All these years, Guela had been watching over us.

And because she was there for him, my father could finally go in peace.

Creative Commons photo by Sarah.

Cancer Essays

Life After The Sell-By Date

When I was diagnosed with gallbladder cancer, I was given just months to live. Seven years later, I'm still cancer free.

When Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee wrote in The Emperor of All Maladies that some cancers kill as inevitably today as they did thousands of years ago, the example he used was gallbladder cancer. That’s what I was diagnosed with in August 2011: stage four, metastasized to the liver. Still, the core of this story would be much the same with any life-threatening illness. To someone who’s just been handed a death sentence, the mode of execution matters less than whether there’s any way to use who you are and what you know to find a way to survive, and go on being you.

At first, it looked as if there wasn’t. Chemotherapy would probably keep me alive for only a few months—not much longer than I’d live without it. Surgery offered a tiny chance, but it wasn’t generally done because of the time-honored assumption, based on relatively few studies, that the cancer would come roaring right back. It was a hard truth, and some of the doctors I consulted tried to obscure it with platitudes like “This cancer isn’t curable, but it’s treatable,” and “You’ll be getting the best care available.” No doubt they were trying to keep me optimistic for as long as possible, given their conviction that I couldn’t live long — and if I’d stayed with them, I wouldn’t have.

It was only by confronting the seriousness of my situation head-on that I understood the need to keep looking for a surgeon who’d consider my specific case with an open mind. But surgery wasn’t a no-brainer.  Faced with the reality that my life was almost certainly coming to a close, I had to think seriously about spending two of my precious remaining months suffering the aftereffects of surgery that might do little if anything to slow the cancer.

A decision like that isn’t about what you know, in a situation where so little can be known for sure. It’s about who you are. Ask yourself: what would you do? It’s a yes-or-no question with no middle ground, and you don’t have all the time in the world to think about it.

A decision like that isn’t about what you know, in a situation where so little can be known for sure. It’s about who you are.

For me, I decided I’d rather try the surgery and have it fail than wonder, for the few months I’d live, whether I’d missed my one chance.

How To Find The Right Cancer Surgeon

Now chair of the department of surgery at Penn Medicine, Dr. Ronald DeMatteo was, when I first saw him, a top liver surgeon at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan. I wasn’t in his office by chance. In the days after the diagnosis, I’d scoured the websites of major cancer centers, identifying surgeons who listed gallbladder cancer as a specialty. Dr. DeMatteo caught my attention not only because of his honors and awards, but also because he looked like a creative thinker. Heavens knows, that’s what I needed.

A few days after we first met, I was sitting in a cushioned chair so deep that my feet didn’t reach the floor, looking at him across a big mahogany desk. We were in his private office, not an examining room, but it was still scary as hell. For all the emotion either of us showed, though, we might have been discussing a routine home repair.

“If all goes well,” he said matter-of-factly, “we’ll take out three-quarters of your liver.” He said that like it was the most natural thing in the world. If all didn’t go well—if, that is, they found more cancer than they’d expected—they’d close up and do nothing.

My diagnosis was officially considered ineligible for surgery, the operation was dangerous in itself with little likelihood of success, and a review committee at Sloan-Kettering had advised against it.

So there I sat, listening to a man I’d known for less than a week calmly describing how he’d slice open my belly and cut out most of a vital organ. And what was I afraid of? That maybe he wouldn’t do it. Is that weird, or what?

For him, as for me, the decision had not been an easy one. My diagnosis was officially considered ineligible for surgery, the operation was dangerous in itself with little likelihood of success, and a review committee at Sloan-Kettering had advised against it. And yet, despite his colleagues’ opposition, Dr. DeMatteo had agreed to take the risk, because the tiny chance that surgery offered was the only chance I had. In a situation where medical science couldn’t provide a clear right answer, and with a healthy patient who understood the odds and wanted to go for it, he took the long shot.

Death Sentence Reprieved

As I write this story, there’s been no sign of cancer for seven years. To some, that might seem to prove that he, and I, made the right choice.

But I think of renowned philosopher and activist Susan Sontag, who sought out the most aggressive treatment for breast cancer, and recovered. She then sought out the most aggressive treatment for uterine cancer, and recovered. Finally, she demanded the most aggressive treatment for leukemia, only to die harder, and probably sooner, than she would have without it.

So did she and her doctors make two right decisions, and one wrong one? I don’t think so. Far more often than we like to admit, success or failure depends not on painstaking analysis, but on chance. A Sanskrit verse says it best: “Man, your control extends only to your actions. Over the results of your actions, you have no control.”

 Far more often than we like to admit, success or failure depends not on painstaking analysis, but on chance.

When facing life-or-death choices under conditions of great uncertainty, it’s absurd to define right and wrong in terms of an outcome we can’t possibly predict. The right decision is the one that makes the most sense at the time, given not only what we know, but what we value and how we think. It’s a coin tossed in the air. You call it. That’s all.

Now retired from my job, I’m a freelance writer and a volunteer at my local hospital, where I run workshops on how to use writing to relieve stress. I’m an active member of Rotary International, the International Women’s Forum, Mystery Writers of America, the Authors Guild, and the Cosmos Club. I’m a friend and a family member, a Scrabble player and a frequent traveler.

What I’m not is a cancer victim. In fact, although technically a cancer survivor, I don’t identify myself that way unless someone pushes it. Yes, I had cancer. And yes, there’ll never be a guarantee that it won’t come back. But that’s not who I am.

What I’m hoping for, if I’m lucky, is to go on living as I am until felled by what Dr. Atul Gawande describes in Being Mortal as “ODTAA syndrome,” for “one damn thing after another.” It’s the point when the body reaches its natural end, and what’s on the death certificate is almost random — just whatever happened to get there first.

In the meantime, each year on my birthday, I send Dr. DeMatteo a thank-you note. I’m still here, I tell him. And life is good.

Advice Cancer Explainers

How To Deal With Chemotherapy: Everything You Need To Know

So you, or someone you know, is getting chemotherapy. Here's what you need to know.

Chemotherapy. It’s not a feel-good word. It conjures up images of pale, sickly faces with shaved heads. But there’s a lot more to this cancer-killing drug regimen than its most talked about side effects. Because after you go through chemotherapy, it changes you in all sorts of ways… and while some of those changes can be unpleasant, others can be extremely positive and life-affirming.

Because nothing beats chatting with someone who can share their first-hand knowledge, Folks spoke to two cancer survivors about their experiences: Allison St. Pierre, who was diagnosed with breast cancer just after her 52nd birthday in 2014, and Eric Fishman, who was 35-years-old when he received a diagnosis of testicular cancer in 2017. Whether you’re a newly diagnosed patient looking at treatments, a friend or family member of someone with cancer, or just curious about what geting chemo is like, here’s what you need to know about chemotherapy.

Every Chemo Treatment Is Different

For starters, chemotherapy is not a one-size-fits-all drug–it’s actually a mix of chemicals (a drug cocktail, if you will) that are combined together based on the diagnosis, stage of cancer, and best course of care for each person. Although an oncologist will recommend the mix and intensity of treatment, the patient is the one who makes the final decision on exactly how aggressive they want treatment to be.

Some regiments of chemo can be extremely intense: Eric had three rounds of treatment, each consisting of a week of daily treatments followed by two weeks mostly off except a treatment on Tuesday. Others can be relatively laid back: Allison received one day of treatment a month with a month off between treatments, which is more common.

Almost Everyone Gets A Port

No, not the dessert wine. Because chemotherapy is such a potent mix of chemicals, inserting it directly into a small vein could dissolve the vein. So before chemotherapy begins, patients undergo a brief outpatient procedure to have a thin tube, called a catheter, placed directly into a large vein, often near the heart. The port is then connected to the catheter internally and has an external opening for chemotherapy delivery. Instead of a nurse continually pricking a patient to find a large, working vein, a special needle is placed directly into the port and then connected to an IV holding the personalized chemotherapy cocktail. Ports can also be used to draw blood.

There are exceptions, of course. Depending on the type of cancer and treatment used, some patients do receive chemotherapy through an IV, or get injections, or even take capsules orally. But for most patients, you’re looking at getting some hardware installed.

Every person’s chemo is different. Creative Commons photo: Beverly Yuen Thompson

What A “Typical” Treatment Is Like

For those who receive their chemotherapy drugs intravenously, they must visit a lab for each treatment. Before chemotherapy begins, a nurse will weigh the patient and take a blood sample. If their blood count is too low, treatment may be delayed until their immune system strengthens. For those with ports or a catheter, the line must be cleared before the new chemotherapy treatment is given. This can leave a bad taste in the mouth, so many patients bring mints or a strongly-flavored drink to avert the taste.

The amount of time it takes for the chemotherapy to drip through the IV and into the body can vary. Allison was typically done in two hours, while Eric needed three. Most patients will pack a “chemo bag” full of items that will provide them with comfort and help pass the time. While each bag is personal, some common items can include a large water bottle, a jacket and/or blanket, books, and electronic devices (with headphones!) to listen to music or watch movies.

Patients May Lose More Than Just Their Hair

Chemotherapy doesn’t only eliminate cancerous cells, it’s designed to kill all fast-growing cells. So not only do you lose the hair on your head, you can also lose all your body hair… and when it grows back, it may, at first, be very different than before. For example, formerly coarse hair may grow back baby fine, and once wooly legs may be almost bare. Some people even lose the nails on their fingers, or experience skin discoloration by developing splotches that look like sunspots. And while for most, these changes are temporary, some people can end up permanently changed by chemo.

What’s the trick to getting through these changes? Alison says: “Take charge!”

“When you have cancer, you feel you like you don’t have any control,” Allison explains. “My daughter and I made a party out of shaving my head. It was long, so she chopped it in stages to see what it looked like. I even had a mohawk at one point!” It can even be fun to accessorize around a newly bald head: for example, by trying out wigs with cool new hairstyles, or embracing a range of fun scarves and hats.ys to exert a bit of control.

When you have cancer, you feel you like you don’t have any control…Take charge!

Chemotherapy Will Change What You Eat

Chemotherapy causes nausea and vomiting, leading to weight loss, but that’s not all. It also changes your taste buds. Lasting up to five days after treatment, everything Allison ate had a distinct metallic flavor; Eric, on the other hand, completely lost his ability to taste after treatment. Both are common side effects from chemotherapy.

In addition, because of nausea and possible mouth sores, “heavy” foods (like burgers, pizza, or steak), sodas and sweets are often unappealing to chemotherapy patients. Many will stick to a diet of bland foods, like mashed potatoes, oatmeal, and crackers.  Luckily, taste buds often return to normal in between treatments, and once chemotherapy is complete, food will taste like food again.

Finally, when you undergo chemotherapy, you need to be really careful about where you’re buying your food. Since outbreaks of salmonella and E.coli are on the rise, patients may now be advised to avoid fresh, raw produce, which could prove deadly to a person who cannot fight off bacteria. Say so long to the farmer’s market, at least until treatment is done.

Your Life Still Continues Normally During Chemo

Most chemotherapy plans involve periods of treatment, followed by periods of relative normalcy, where no chemotherapy is had. During treatment periods, the symptoms can keep patients homebound, but in those weeks between, most patients resume their “normal” lives as much as possible.  In Allison’s “two good weeks” between rounds, she worked at her local community theater, shopped at the grocery store, enjoyed meals out with friends and went to the movies. She even remembers the satisfaction of having enough energy to clean her kitchen.

Chemotherapy Can Change Your Personality And Your Politics

For Allison, going through chemotherapy resulted in a complete mind shift. She was raised to be polite, not speak out, and to put others first. But chemotherapy made her realize that maybe she needed to spend more time advocating for herself, and speaking up when things were wrong. “Cancer completely upended my life and made me outspoken,” she says. Why? It all had to do with the feeling of being helpless during the negative side effects of treatment, and not wanting to feel that way in her day-to-day life. “I started looking at the big picture and began to view things differently. I’m a Southern girl and was taught not to talk about politics, but now I’m speaking up.”

Chemotherapy Also Changes Friendships And Provides Opportunities For New Ones

Chemotherapy can, weirdly enough, be a good time to bond with your friends, or even make new friendships.

For Eric, friends took turns accompanying him to chemotherapy treatments, and helped support his wife and children. One buddy in particular stands out. “My friend’s dad had recently died of cancer,” he recalls. “While I was going through chemotherapy, he called often to check in on me: he called more than anyone else.  We’ve become much closer now. He’s never been a mushy guy, but now he’s much mushier towards me. Even though the treatments are complete and I no longer have cancer, he still calls me often to check in. And now, it’s not just to ask how I’m feeling. Before, I was usually the one who called him, but now he calls me much more.”

Allison also made numerous new friends during her chemotherapy treatments. And not all of those friends were local. While she did attend some support group meetings, the women she met mostly older, many of Allison’s closest friends were made through online support forums for fellow cancer patients.

Staying positive and making friends is important to make it through chemo. Creative Commons photo: Komen Austin

Attitude Is Everything

Both Allison and Eric stressed that positive thinking and staying away from undue negativity was the major thing that brought them through what they call “the hell of chemotherapy.”

For Allison, taking a “media fast” was very important. Instead of watching or reading the news, she chose to read the Bible, write in her journal, walk in nature, participate in yoga classes for cancer patient, and join support groups.

Eric approached it differently. He kept his distance from negative friends and avoided as many conversations about cancer as possible. At chemotherapy treatments, he and friends would while away the time by watching funny movies together. (In fact, one time, Eric was laughing so uproariously during treatment that a woman next to him asked if he’d gotten extra drugs in his chemo cocktail.)

The walkaway from all this? If you’re a chemo patient, do whatever it takes to feel good about the world during this time; if you’re the friend of a patient, follow their lead, and be as upbeat as possible.

There Is

 A Light At The End Of The Tunnel

It might feel like chemo never ends, but it does. And life does get back to normal, eventually, even if it can take a long time.

When he received an all-clear from his oncologist, Eric says that he still didn’t feel “fully normal” partly because he still looked sick. It wasn’t until months later, when his eyebrows grew back, that he started feeling like he was really better.

Allison’s recovery was faster.  Starting just a few weeks after her last treatment, she began to see new hair, which she photographed weekly as a reminder of the progress. For her, this served as proof that she was recovering, even though it seemed slow. She created an electronic photo album called “Hair,” and as soon as she felt it was long enough to publicly display, she donated her wigs to a local cancer organization.

When your chemo ends, there can be a tendency to feel a certain degree of survivor’s guilt: to ask yourself, why did you make it, when so many others don’t? To this, Alison says that we should all remember a song from one of her favorite musicals, Hamilton.

“There’s a line in a song sung by Aaron Burr called ‘Wait For It,'” she says. “It goes, ‘If there’s a reason I’m still alive when so many have died, I’m willing to wait for it.’ I don’t know why I’m still here while others are not, but we have to focus on the positive and hang on to that.”

Creative Commons photo at top by North Carolina National Guard.

Cancer Chronic Illness Features

Is Medical Crowdfunding Really The Answer To A Broken Healthcare System?

These three stories of individuals who used crowdfunding to raise money to pay their medical bills show that sites like Indiegogo are just one piece of the puzzle when it comes to navigating the system.

Life with a health condition can be a stressful journey, but financial woes can make it harder. In a broken health care system in which few people can truly afford to be chronically ill, many patients have to get creative. That’s why many Americans are turning to crowdfunding—raising money on the Internet using social media for promotion–to pay their health care costs, with middling success. According to Business Insider, half of all funds raised on crowdfunding platforms like Indiegogo, YouCaring and GoFundMe are used for medical costs,

Lost in the greater debate about whether healthcare crowdfunding is evidence of a broken system or innovation in action, though, are the personal stories.

Shelley Simmonds.

Fraser Simmonds was born with a rare life-limiting condition called Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, a genetic degenerative muscular condition which over time causes muscles to waste away and die currently has no cure or treatment options. Although the Simmonds family lives in the UK, which has free healthcare through the National Health Service (NHS), not all of Fraser’s expenses were paid for: for example, the powered wheelchair he needed to socialize independently with other kids, which was not considered a “medical requirement.”

The family eventually launched a GoFundMe campaign for essential care for Fraser. And they’re doing their part to pay it forward: the family now regularly organizes charitable events to raise money for a treatment for Duchenne.

Fraser’s Mom, Shelley, explains that it wasn’t easy for the Simmonds to turn to crowdfunding. The family was always financially independent before Fraser was born, and it was hard for them to ask for help. “Having a disabled child is a huge financial worry,” she says. “People do not always understand what little financial help is given to those that genuinely need it. I would do whatever it takes to give Fraser the best in life so sometimes you have to put your pride aside.”

Yet because he lives in the UK, Fraser Simmonds is one of the lucky ones, whose medical costs are still mostly paid for by the NHS. Here in the US, though, the generosity of strangers on crowdfunding platforms can be the difference between life and death.

Amongst other ailments, Linda Ruescher lives with lupus, a chronic autoimmune disease that affects 1.5 million people in the U.S. alone. At age 64, just three months before being eligible from Medicare, Linda lost her insurance and developed a pulmonary embolism. A life-saving hospital visit left her with an astounding medical bill of $130,000, as well as out-of-pocket prescription bills that cost over $2,100 a month.

People do not always understand what little financial help is given to those that genuinely need it…

Although Linda returned to work just six days after her hospital visit, those costs were unaffordable. “I had to choose between a roof over my head and food in my belly or the medication,” she says. “I just needed to hold on three more months until I qualified for Medicare. I was sick, exhausted and terrified of being homeless,” she says. Crowdfunding was her only option, and after a social media push from her friends and family, she reached her crowdfunding goal. But it didn’t come without a personal cost. “Asking for help struck at the core of my identity,” she says. “It represented a loss of independence, a loss of ability to support myself and my needs, and even worse, it forced me to recognize and face the severity of my health condition.”

What also gets lost in the debate around healthcare crowdfunding is that money alone can’t solve many of the problems that people with chronic health conditions face. When Nicholas Emerson’s hardworking father died from a rare and aggressive form of Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2016, his absence as the sole provider for the family was sorely felt. Nicholas and his sister set up a crowdsourcing page to try to alleviate some of the strain. They met their goal, but found that money alone couldn’t fill the hole that had been left in their family.

Linda Rueschler used crowdfunding to pay her bills after a sudden embolism.

“Crowdfunding sites help to pay the bills but that’s only one aspect of care that’s needed,” he says. “Such sites can never do enough to help with all the other time-sensitive, rapidly-changing, emotional, psychological, and physical needs involved [in a sudden health emergency] that, unless you’ve gone through your own version of this, you will never fully understand.” That’s why he created Supportful, a platform that allows families to crowdsource the tangible acts of support they need from their friends and families, like fundraising, meals, gifting, volunteering, and more.

There are no universal panaceas to navigating the complicated world of chronic illness, and crowdfunding is no different. Even if you can raise the money you need through crowdfunding your medical expenses, it can only help ease the burden of having a condition touch your life, not cure it completely. Until our system evolves enough to meet the full spectrum of needs a person might face on their healthcare journey, crowdfunding will only be one piece of the puzzle.


Cancer Q&As

The In-Between Days Of Having Cancer

In her powerful graphic memoir, comic artist Teva Harrison shines light on "the bogeyman that is my cancer."

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When Canadian artist Teva Harrison was preparing to undergo stereotactic radiation—a medical procedure that requires the patient to be vacuum-sealed into a mould that feels like a bean bag chair—she couldn’t stop laughing. “I felt wrapped up like a tray of supermarket sushi,” Harrison writes in her graphic memoir, In-Between Days, which chronicles her life after being diagnosed with incurable metastatic breast cancer at age 37. In a black-and-white comic, a smiling cartoon Harrison lies shrink-wrapped on a hospital bed and asks her technician: “Would you mind taking my picture in here so I can show my husband how weird this process is? Please?”

This sense of humor and eye for the absurd is woven throughout the devastating personal essays and minimalist pen-and-ink comics that make up In-Between Days. That doesn’t mean the book is Pollyanna-ish—Harrison confronts head-on the heartbreak, terror, and physical agony her cancer wreaks—but that these pages contain equal parts hope and dread. “I am chock full of hope, mostly because I need it to get through every single day,” Harrison writes. The “Acts of Hope” illustrated in one comic include “wearing seatbelts in cabs; buying recycled toilet paper; 7-step skincare regimen—because who does these things if they don’t believe in the future?” Perhaps the bravest act of hope Harrison performs is that of drawing and writing about her illness, which presumes the possibility of finding meaning and connection in the midst of suffering.

Teva Harrison. Photo by David P. Leonard.

“When I was first diagnosed, I didn’t want to talk to anybody,” Harrison writes in the book’s preface. “I have since learned that it is the unspoken that is most frightening. Shining a light on my experience takes some of the power away from the bogeyman that is my cancer. I am taking my power back.” This means Harrison is unflinching in her illustrations of cancer’s grisly realities—from opiate-induced emotional numbness and vomiting to the foggy memory and vaginismus that follows surgical menopause—but also that she refuses to let pain block out light. She offers snapshots of her sustaining marriage and friendships; reflections on her family history and Jewish heritage; and childhood memories of snowball fights and summers spent floating with her sisters in “the mermaid pool,” a super-sized metal horse trough with a dedicated hose.

Shining a light on my experience takes some of the power away from the bogeyman that is my cancer.

In a society that often dehumanizes and shuts out the seriously ill—as Harrison puts it, “When we get sick, we disappear”—this portrait of living in the “in-between spaces” offers the antidote of empathy. We spoke to Harrison about the making of In-Between Days, the downsides of prevention messaging, and how to sustain hope and humor even when “wrapped up like a tray of supermarket sushi.”

“Living with this disease has changed the way I look at people around me,” you write. “I wonder what pain they bear silently.” How has your experience of compassion—your understanding of other people’s pain and suffering—changed since your diagnosis?

I don’t look like a person who has terminal cancer. I move through the world as a regular person—and yet I have all this pain and challenges I have to work through, from getting out of bed to getting where I need to be. It changed how I look at people — if strangers are cranky, pushing you on the subway, struggling to get a seat, I try to think about what might be behind that, what’s difficult in that person’s life, what’s making it harder for them to get through the world.

While you acknowledge the unrelenting pain and depression that comes with living with cancer, there’s more hope than despair in the pages of In-Between Days. Where do you find your wellspring of hope?

Pain Management.

An element of it is how I’ve always seen the world. I’ve always erred on the side of optimism and beauty and appreciation and gratitude. But I have to have hope. I think it’s the only way you can live with this sort of disease and go on living, doing the things you love. A lot of my hope comes from the firm community I have. I’m really lucky in that regard. I have good family and good friends. That goes a long way because it means I have support—it’s easier to feel hopeful when you have support.

I get hope from watching the news and seeing how many new treatments are being developed all the time. I get hope from reading stories of exceptional responders—people who have lived a really long time with this disease. Because it is possible. Maybe I will get to have a normal lifespan. I’ll get to see change that is meaningful. So long as it’s possible, there’s hope there.

How did writing In-Between Days change your understanding of yourself, your own illness, and illness in general?

Before my diagnosis, I was director of marketing for the Nature Conservancy of Canada. My job had become very much entwined with my identity. I lost that when I got sick and had to stop working. There was this chunk of me that was missing. I didn’t have the ease of identity that you have when you have the knowledge that you’re contributing to society. Writing this book helped me work out what my place is now, how I fit in as a person living with illness, and how I can still contribute to the cultural conversation. The act of writing it helped me work out in real time how I feel about what I’m going through and how to communicate it. Writing and drawing about it caused me to think about being sick or having an incurable illness in an analytical way.

“I know my cancer is genetic, but I can’t help but blame myself sometimes,” you write. “I wonder what awful thing I did to deserve to get cancer. I run through all the bad things I’ve ever done.” You’re an atheist, but still occasionally entertain the notion of illness as some sort of divine punishment for personal moral failings—a common impulse for anyone looking for an answer to the question “why me.” Why do you think you sometimes go down the road of blaming yourself or looking for things you’ve done to “deserve to get cancer?”

Cancer gratitudes.

We live in a society with so much messaging about prevention. With all that prevention messaging, where we were told ‘if you do this and this and this, you’ll be okay,’ it feels like if you do all these things and you’re still not okay, it must be your fault. That messaging is really deeply embedded in our culture. It comes, in some cases from the medical community, and also from other people. It’s a hard one to get around. Many of us feel this way. I’ve been told by many medical profs that this disease was coming for me, that it’s hereditary—but I still think, “well, I was on the pill for a few years, what about this and that,” things I did, be they moral or physical. I feel awful for people who don’t have that reassurance. I don’t know how to reconcile these feelings.

Then there’s the hyper-personal element—I’m Jewish and we have a special kind of guilt. My husband was raised Catholic and I was raised Jewish—the two primary guilty religions. He once said that Catholics feel guilty for what they’ve done, Jews for what they haven’t done.

“Friends stop themselves from sharing their problems, mumbling, ‘I mean, I have no right to bother you with my little problems. You have cancer,’” you write. “And in that moment, they’ve simultaneously raised me up and shut me out.” People often get uncomfortable and withdraw when a friend of theirs is ill. What are the most helpful things friends have said or done for you during illness?


Every cancer patient appreciates different things. For me, a big part has been offering something concrete. If someone asks, “What can I do to help?” I rarely have something at the tip of my tongue. But if someone says, “Can I bring you soup?” or “Do you need rides? I’m available x and y day”—that’s helpful. Sometimes my brain is really cloudy and I’m not able to come up with something – I appreciate people just being regular friends and telling me what’s going on in their lives, even if it feels like complaining.

But it’s really just showing up. There’s gonna be a misstep on one side or the other on any relationship. It’s more acutely felt with cancer or any serious illness. We always have to negotiate. Language is imperfect. Communication is this iterative process—we’re able to get there if we both try.  

How has this illness affected your friendships?  

With metastatic breast cancer, friendships are sometimes really brief and really bright. Because survival is so short, everyone I’ve met with this disease is trying to pack as much as they can in. We’re all living hard and bright. And that’s a special thing to experience with someone.

Which artists and writers most influence your work?

Helen Frankenthaler is my favorite painter. I particularly like her works picturing big objects pressing against tiny little narrow spaces. Writers, I love Lydia Millett and Lydia Davis—my two Lydias. Art Spiegelman. I love Maira Kalman—her book My Favorite Things.

You manage to hold onto your sense of humor during treatment — “I couldn’t stop laughing,” you write. “Having been wrapped up like a tray of sushi, I asked the technician to go into my purse, take out my phone, and take a picture so I could show my husband.” How do you make yourself laugh in the midst of cancer treatment?

Cover art to In-Between Days.

I feel like who we are when we’re well is who we are when we’re sick. If we have a tendency to laugh about things when we’re well, I think we’re still laughing when we’re sick. If we tend to take things very seriously, we do that when sick. Humor is partly a coping mechanism, a way of getting through it. Part of it is also the fact that this was all new to me, since I had no real experience with the medical industry. I was discovering things like a little kid— “This is so cool! This is amazing!” They can’t stop laughing. To a degree, I’m like that. It keeps me from going in a dark direction. I have the capacity for both, and finding the humor in something helps me to not just see how dismal it can be.

You can buy a copy of In-Between Days on Amazon here.

Cancer Q&As

Tying Together A Cancer Support Network In Rural America

When his mom died of stomach cancer, Matt Dexter formed the Christine B Foundation to make sure that no one affected by cancer ever felt alone, no matter how geographically isolated.

The fall of 2007 should have been one of the most exciting times of his life. Matt Dexter was 13 years old, starting eighth grade and excited about the prospect of high school the following year. His whole life was open in front of him.

But in October, after a series of misdiagnoses, his mother Christine was diagnosed with stomach cancer. When a dozen surgeries failed to remove the cancer from her stomach and intestines, Christine returned home and spent the last six months of her life on hospice. She passed away in April 2008 at 47 years old, eight months after her diagnosis.

It was a confusing time for Dexter and challenging time for the whole family. Dexter, his older sister, and father had to shuffle their schedules, lifestyle, and responsibilities to step into the role of caregiver for the woman who held the house and family together.

Christine Dexter’s death inspired her son, Matt, to find a cancer foundation in her honor.

“What really struck me was being a caregiver [to my mom] and having the person who gave me life lose her own life and there was nothing I could do. That time was a defining part of why I’m doing the work I‘m doing now,” says Dexter. “For me, as a caregiver, I wanted to try to understand the whole cancer experience. Having it be a struggle-free experience is really important.”

[H]aving the person who gave me life lose her own life… That time was a defining part of why I’m doing the work I‘m doing now.

In 2014, Dexter created the Eastern Trek for Cancer, a relay run to raise money to support the cancer community in eastern Maine and later established the Christine B. Foundation, in honor of his mom. Dexter spoke with Folks about how his mother inspired him to advocate for cancer patients and families, the importance of community, and his vision for creating a model for cancer care in rural communities.

This interview was edited and condensed for publication.

Tell us about your mom. What was she like?

My mom was the go-to mom in the neighborhood. She would always say yes to everyone and everything—hosting fun events, inviting kids over for movie night, working with schools and stepping in as a substitute teacher. My favorite story is that she was the crazy woman on the highway who gave the tollbooth workers candy to say thank you and put a smile on their faces. She was a social worker, helping families and children at-risk and, after having two children, became a full-time mom. She was very outgoing and treasured her relationships and friendships.

How did things change after your mom got sick?

It was this trifecta of madness at the time. I was entering high school in the fall, which in and of itself was a lot of stress. My sister was starting college, and my dad had to shift positions at work to be home more. All three of us had to adjust our lives, not only due to the natural transitions of life but to stay together and not totally fall apart as a family.

It was tough for my father and I to keep as strong of a relationship as I had with my mother. Especially with my mother’s misdiagnosis, I wasn’t fully aware of what her surgeries were or what a misdiagnosis really meant. At the time, I thought that you go to the doctor and they fixed it. I didn’t understand why she was not OK and why she now no longer with us. I blamed the doctors and I blamed my father. I had a lot of build up anger. I think it was hard for people to speak my language and break things down to help me in a way that I wanted to accept.

At the time, I thought that you go to the doctor and they fixed it. I didn’t understand why she was not OK and why is she now no longer with us.

After your mom was diagnosed and in treatment, was there a support network you could draw on?

We had a lot of grassroots support. My aunt—my mom’s sister—came up from the Cape and spent five or six weeks with us, which helped keep the household together. Many of our neighbors, whom my mom had supported in the past, came out to support my mom and our family. For example, for about five weeks, a neighbor always cooked and delivered a hot meal to us, Monday through Friday. It rotated around the neighborhood and it was the always the best food: an appetizer, main course, dessert, and different drinks.

Being 13 at the time, I didn’t really process the value of this support. But looking back, it certainly made a huge difference and helped me realized how far smaller initiatives can go to make a difference, what you can do with a lot of individual voices, and the impact one voice can have when you’re working together.

What’s the mission of the Christine B. Foundation?

Our mission is to build a community of support for those in eastern Maine affected by cancer. From the beginning, we knew that we wanted to support those facing cancer, both patients and families. We didn’t want to focus on research or treatment. We wanted to provide immediate support.

Our mission is to build a community of support for those in eastern Maine affected by cancer.

Eastern Trek brings together a team of 12-15 young adults for a seven-day, 300-mile relay run from Portland, Maine to New York City to raise money for the foundation. Why running?

The direction I took wasn’t the healthiest in terms of processing the loss of my mother at such a young age. Leaving my hometown and everything i was used to, moving 300 miles north, starting college—I used running as a way to stay grounded and really process where I wanted to go with my life. I love the way running helps people not only with their physical health but their mental health as well. It can be a tool to process certain stressors and a platform to build community and to raise money. We started with the Eastern Trek for Cancer in 2015.

The Foundation focuses its work on eastern Maine. Why?

I went to the University of Maine in Orono. I thought I would follow in my mom’s footsteps and go into social work. I was also very into the Maine culture. It was so different compared to where I grew up [outside Boston]. I did some volunteer work to get more involved with the Maine community, specifically eastern Maine and it hit me during my sophomore and junior years that I could do good here.

There’s such a need in eastern Maine to support those affected by cancer. As we started planning year two of the Eastern Trek for Cancer, we listened to people in the Maine community, specifically Penobscot County, and Downeast, near Bar Harbor.

I love the way running helps people not only with their physical health but their mental health as well. It can be a tool to process certain stressors and a platform to build community and to raise money.

Being a rural community, there are so many barriers and lack of support to help people utilize care. For example, people have to travel upwards of 100 to 120 miles round-trip just to receive treatment. There’s also a higher incidence rate here compared to other states and the average household income in Maine is relatively low. We felt like there was no other place in the country that needed support like here. That’s how we shifted gears and began thinking about how we could leverage the resources in the community to help the people of eastern Maine and also the people traveling to the area to receive treatment.

What are the Foundation’s programs?

We empower people and provide services to people. The empowerment component right now is through the Eastern Trek for Cancer. It’s more than just a 5K on a Sunday morning. We empower young adults to make a difference by becoming part of the cancer community, using running as a platform, and raising funds and awareness for our mission. We have two scholarship opportunities, a $2,000 scholarship and a $500 scholarship, for undergraduate students affected by cancer. We also host service events like a Cancer Survivor’s Day and hand out comfort bags to patients at different cancer centers.

Matt Dexter at the Christine B Foundation Survivor’s Day.

Your vision is a struggle-free cancer experience. What does it look like?

I’ve definitely been in meetings and discussions where people say that’s a ridiculous vision. But we want to work ourselves out of a job. The struggle-free cancer experience is really about trying to reduce the burden that people face when they experience anything to do with cancer. We want to make sure it’s as easy and as simple as possible for people to navigate through the cancer journey and get the support they need—navigating the finances, understanding treatment options and what the doctors are saying, finding transportation and housing options. We also want to educate people to be proactive about their health and hopefully avoid a cancer diagnosis in the first place, whether that’s through diet or health or other wellness opportunities.

We want to make sure it’s as easy and as simple as possible for people to navigate through the cancer journey and get the support they need…

Do you think this would have changed your experience?

I don’t know. I think it’s hard to look back and see what would have worked and what didn’t work. Support depends on the community you live in—neighbors who can help, transportation options, and support services. I had dinners brought to me and I had supporters. I hope that through our work, other children who might happen to be entering high school and just lost a parent to cancer can navigate around all of the opportunities [and feel supported].

What’s your vision for the future?

We want to connect the cancer community as much as possible and create a community of support for anyone affected by cancer. We want to leverage all the other providers in the community to help them help more people, to support transportation assistance to make it as easy as possible for patients to utilize care, and to make housing options more readily available for those traveling to the area.

Hopefully, 10 years down the road, we can serve as a precedent for rural communities for building and investing in a community of support for their cancer community. We want to identify what works in eastern Maine and share our successes and collaborate as much as possible with other rural communities.

Cancer Essays

The Happy Little Life Club

The last lesson my mom taught me before she died of stomach cancer was the secret to living life to its fullest.

“How am I going to raise my kids without you?” I asked clenching my hands tightly in my lap. “They’re still babies. I need you. You’re not done yet.”

I shifted in the plastic-backed wooden chair and looked around the kitchen, as if taking it in for the first time, or, perhaps, the last. The mirrored ceiling fan above our heads spun in circles, calm and steady, just like it did for countless meals growing up.

It was hard to look at her; she was different. She smiled at me in a way I’d never seen before.

“You will be fine,” she said. “You’re a good mom.”

She was serene and at peace with her decision, but we were not. She’d already moved on, but we hadn’t.

It was mid-November 2014 and her four grandchildren were playing with their great-aunt, two rooms away. In the kitchen, we could hear their giggles and gleeful screams, along with the popping sound of a push toy and a Disney movie playing in the background. My mother would usually never miss an opportunity to spend time with her grandchildren, but nothing about what we were going through now was usual.

She was serene and at peace with her decision, but we were not. She’d already moved on, but we hadn’t.

The air in the house was heavy this time. Heavy in a way it had never been before. Even during the three previous times where she’d faced cancer, there was hope. This time, all there was was dread, thick and looming.

Yet through all of this, my mother sat across from us, completely content. The morphine had begun to take effect, easing her of the unbearable pain of Stage IV stomach cancer. This time, we all knew, death was going to win, but only my mom seemed at peace with this. Perhaps she felt some peace with the fact that she had chosen to leave on her own terms, by coming home and saying goodbye to friends and family. But part of me wondered if the morphine had transformed her personality.

Clockwise from top-left: my sister, me, and my Dad, saying our final goodbyes to my Mom in November 2014.

A pessimist by nature, my mother was not usually the serene, peaceful woman she was now. As her brother said, she was normally staid. Ask anyone who knew her how she’d face her death, and they’d tell you the same thing:  Yes, she’d have emotions, but not these. She’d be angry. She’d be sad. She’d be jealous of those who were able to watch her grandchildren grow. She wouldn’t smile. She wouldn’t be at peace.

All sitting together at the table, my mom faced me, my sister, and my dad, saying her goodbyes while she was still lucid. I was directly across from her, and her stillness, her peace and her sense of calm as she said goodbye to the three of us flooded me with emotions.

Her stillness, her peace and her sense of calm as she said goodbye to the three of us flooded me with emotions.

She never sat still like this, ever. She was a doer, always a doer. She’d clean the baseboards while we spoke on the phone. She weeded her grass by hand. Weekly. She purchased and planted flowers at her synagogue. She took long walks and bike rides; she exercised daily in front of the TV. She didn’t take the time to sit and enjoy the calm peacefulness of a warm spring morning, dew still on the grass, birds singing and the sun warming the earth. She was moving. Keeping busy at all times. There was always something for her to do.

But now, facing death, she was stiller than I’d ever seen her. And I didn’t know what to think about it. Mom seemed to have no regrets about ending her life, even though she was leaving so much behind.

A few months before, a little over one year into what would be a contentious three-year divorce, I’d taken my children to visit family friends at their beach house. One night, after the children had gone to bed, I asked what my friend’s network name “hllc” stood for.

“It stands for happy little life club,” he told me. He’d taken up that motto after his divorce. It was how he chose to live his life. That was nice, I thought, but definitely not my life. Yet that phrase stuck with me for some reason, never too far from my mind.

As I sat observing my mom watch her family tearfully tell her goodbye, “happy little life” re-entered my mind. Is that what she had, I wondered? Even though she was leaving so soon, abandoning the life she worked so hard to create? Was she really happy? Was she really content leaving her life? Her own “happy little life” that was still in progress?

We each took turns telling my mom how we felt about her, what we’d miss, how sorry we were that this was happening to her. Our eyes were wet, but not hers. The only thing she gave back were smiles and small words of comfort.

The next few weeks would be challenging. Death refused to take my Mom quickly. As we waited for her to pass, I found myself thinking back, over and over again, to our final conversation. The peace from which she spoke—her acceptance of death—impacted me in a way I couldn’t quite understand, but kept coming back to.

In the three years since my mother died, I think I have finally come to understand what my mom communicated to me that day. When we sat down together at that table, my life was full of stress and sadness, but since then, I’ve divorced, returned to my writing career, and worked hard to create a life that I was proud of; a life I could accept leaving with nothing left undone or unsaid at the end of the day.  I’ve challenged myself to do things that bring me joy, knowing that life could end at any moment.

So today, my mother’s final serenity make sense to me. The woman who had moved through life as if it were a to-do list of tasks had finally checked off every last one, and was free to rest. The woman who never sat still finally did.

That woman, my mother, had her happy little life, just in her own way.

And now, I know she was trying to tell me, it was time to make mine.

Cancer Essays

How Comedy Kept Me Going Through Chemo

Stage IV Non-Hodgkins' lymphoma was the last place I thought I'd find comedy again, but laughing gave me power over my diagnosis.

Growing up, I was that kid. Deigned the official class clown each elementary scholastic year, I soon found myself promoted to in-house comedian midway through junior high — a pope-job I kept through high school and a little beyond. Making other people laugh was addicting. It’s something I’d wake up and look forward to every morning. Then, as I got older, I became more serious, as many people do. I stopped making so many jokes. But a good sense of humor is a gift, and it wasn’t until I rediscovered it during treatment for stage IV non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma that I discovered that gift’s true power.

Cruz Santana.

Because my disease was so advanced by the time of my diagnosis, I ended up spending almost six months shut up in a hospital room, often in terrible pain. Every three weeks, a cocktail of poisons was pumped into me, with the hope of drastically shrinking the malignant tumors housed inside my lymph nodes. I hurt every minute of the day before chemo even began. Once it started, recovering from each session was a living hell. It was the last place I ever thought I’d find comedy again. And it was what I feel helped save me.

A good sense of humor is a gift, and it wasn’t until I rediscovered it during treatment for stage IV non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma that I discovered that gift’s true power.

It was pain that brought me to the doctor in the first place. After eight years of ignoring swollen lymph nodes, I awoke one morning and found my left leg ballooned to twice its normal size. An untold number of scans, biopsies, and follow-up visits later, my oncologist — ever the realist — gave me a detailed mental picture of what I could expect in my next six months.

It wasn’t pretty. Starting on day one, I’d have a series of procedures in preparation for receiving chemotherapy. Among the items on the list: A central line would be surgically inserted through my chest into my subclavian vein leading into my heart. Then they’d pump me with drugs that are so toxic, they have to ship some of them in glass bottles, because they’d eat through the bag. According to my doctors, I would experience nausea, discomfort, and some disorientation.

“Will any of it hurt?” I asked.

He was blunt: “It will. You have non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. And you have a lot of it. But we’ll manage the pain — do all we can. It won’t be bad at all.”

Liar, liar, pants on fire.

All told, on the first day, I had six procedures, including my first ever chemotherapy infusion. When I came to, my chest hurt first: I could feel every bit of whatever form of sorcery had taken place under my skin. Then my leg started aching, thanks to a blood clot they’d discovered. Finally, the rest of me joined in. My skin felt like it’d been covered in bruises. Simply running a hand over my arm sent a bolt through me. Nurses eventually appeared in my doorway armed with syringes of this-and-that, and, oh yeah, pain medications.

Jokes built up beneath the surface. I could hear my mind running through the ways in which being confined to a bed wearing grippy socks and a revealing gown was beyond hilarious. But it didn’t feel like the right time for such a joke, so I held it in.

As the treatment continued, my pain increased in intensity. I was eventually issued my very own PCA pump set to deliver a dose of pain meds every eight minutes with the push of a button. It was enormous. As this Everest of medical-doo-dads wheeled past me, complete with a gigantic LCD screen and looking like the biggest television I’d ever had in my life, my guard went down, and I quipped: “Now, are the dirty channels free on this thing? No? How ‘bout HBO? Still no? Okay, tell ya what… Whose post-coital sandwich do I have to make to make that happen?”

The poor techs about died laughing. I had the room rolling in minutes, and their energy lifted my spirit. With that, strangers became family. Their joy wrapped itself around me, held my ailing body, and loved me through my agony. I can’t even begin to describe how much that helped.

And so it went. Every few weeks for six months, my body was poisoned  The PCA pump took the edge off the painful aftermath, and that’s when I let my guard down, and started cracking jokes to my nurses, doctors, and anyone else in the room who would listen to my twisted sense of humor.

“You should write some of those down, girl,” my nurse suggested during a late-night pow-wow-slash-chemo-sesh.

“Why? They’re not really mine once I they leave me, you know?” I replied. It was my idealistic, self-deprecating side talking. But I started thinking about it. Maybe I should write down my jokes. Maybe they’d help make my kids laugh one day, long after this was over. So I started writing them down, filling composition books with my quips and gags, that went home with me at the end of each stay.

Rediscovering my relationship with humor wouldn’t have happened were it not for my cancer diagnosis

Months later, channeling Fester Addam’s countenance and hairdo, I showed up at a local comedy club for open mic night. Filling out my entry, I hovered over the box labeled “Type of Stand-Up Routine,” and paused, trying to think of something clever. Finally, I gave up and wrote: “The cancer-patient’s kind.” When it was my turn, I was nervous at first as to how my jokes would go over: after all, many people don’t think cancer’s very funny. But my routine killed, and I was even invited back a few times.

A page from Cruz Santana’s journals.

These days, I often revisit those 18 composition books, as if they were a stack of Mad Magazines for the terminally ill. They continue to inspire me: in fact, I recently wrote a speculative pilot script for a dark television comedy based on some of the jokes I wrote down during chemo. And now, as I face a new cycle of chemotherapy sessions, and a bone marrow transplant, I find myself turning to comedy again to help me survive.

Rediscovering my relationship with humor wouldn’t have happened were it not for my cancer diagnosis. Getting sick stripped me of everything–my clothes, my hair, my health–but my sense of humor not only remained, it came back with a vengeance, comforting me and giving me power over a foe I cannot see, but can beat. Especially if I keep laughing at it.

Cancer Profiles

Space, Time, and Turmeric

After survivng cancer, James Beard award-nominee chef Will Goldfarb moved to Bali, and opened a restaurant in paradise.

Bali is a magnet for soul-searchers, yoga and wellness practitioners, and expatriates bent on reinvention. The extremely lush island in Indonesia that transformed Eat Pray Love author Elizabeth Gilbert from a melancholy divorcee to best-selling author and happily married wife worked its healing magic on renowned New York pastry chef Will Goldfarb.

Room4Dessert, the avant-garde dessert and cocktail bar in Soho where he was the chef and partner, opened in 2005, and won him a James Beard Best Pastry Chef in America nomination for his artistry. It closed two years later, despite its popularity, after Goldfarb’s health issues first arose. But who said life has no second acts? The second Room4Dessert opened in 2014 in Ubud, Bali, where his wife always dreamed of going, after his bout with cancer.  Trading the asphalt jungle for the real jungle and kowtowing to no one, and the gritty Type A ethos of the Big Apple for the tranquillity of a place many equate with paradise, Goldfarb found the Hindu island ideal for his needs.

“Bali is the perfect place for recovery,” he said. “Space, time and turmeric.”  Each day he drinks Jamu, the local remedy based on turmeric, tamarind, honey and lime; along with a green juice and a bottle of coconut water.  A far cry from the life of the endless espresso.

“Bali is the perfect place for recovery,” he said. “Space, time and turmeric.”

When he first arrived in Bali, Goldfarb tired easily. Then, he began to recharge, and take charge of his career in a way he had never done before, as Bali’s fabled life-giving qualities seeped into his veins.

“Since moving to Bali, I have been able to focus on all aspects of well-being.  For the first time in my life I have given serious thought to my diet and rest habits, and the results have been surprising,” he added.  The daily routine of subways and traffic jams have been replaced by pilates and frequent steam baths at a local picturesque spa.

Will Goldfarb, plating one of Room4Dessert’s signature dishes.

He began leading the pastry team at Ku De Ta, a popular restaurant in Seminyak, an upscale beach resort area that some call the Beverly Hills of Bali. He worked with Ku De Ta to add a new floor for a second restaurant with a dessert laboratory where he could experiment to his heart’s content with Bali’s exotic bounty of tropical fruits, herbs and spices. Called Mejekawi, it opened in 2013.

His inventions began to flow fast and furiously. Bubbles concocted from torch ginger, a vivid red showy flower. A meringue from palm sugar, the caramelised nectar of the coconut palm. A pandan panna cotta, where the custard-like Italian dessert was flavored with pandan leaves, a tropical plant widely used in Southeast Asian and Indian cooking.

But Room4Dessert always lurked in the back of his mind, as unfinished business he needed to tend.

In Ubud, the cultural capital of Bali, a café closed and Goldfarb decided to open its 2.0 reincarnation with what he cheerily admits was “zero” budget. Home furnishings were needed to fill up the room, nearly five times the original New York’s location in size. Recycled metal was used for the outside door and inside. Local artists, including the restaurant’s original hostess, were asked to contribute art.

Will Goldfarb

His nine-course dessert tasting menus and selection of cocktails and fine wines became a hit among locals and tourists. Whimsical creations, like Caramel Tea Brulee with cardamom and black tea, and playful names danced across the menu, like Ghostface Keller (wood-roasted papaya, apple tatin, doughnut, cocoa nibs and Reblochon cream from the soft raw cow’s milk cheese from France), whose name alludes to both the Wu-Tang Clan, the New York hip-hop group, and Thomas Keller of French Laundry fame in Napa.

The secret garden restaurant features more casual fare, inspired by Goldfarb’s global travels, including his stint at elBulli (the three-Michelin-star restaurant in Spain, now closed), and late nights at L’Hort D’En Minguets in Roses.  Room4Dessert helped develop the booming food scene in Ubud.

Goldfarb has always been determined with a never-say-die attitude. His resilience after hardship or rejection is an inspiration to us all. (It’s no accident he named his line of pastry flavorings and powders WillPowder.)

“I like to think that I have been given a second chance.  There is no way I will let it slip through my fingers.”

“I like to think that I have been given a second chance.  There is no way I will let it slip through my fingers.”

He once joked at a TEDx talk in Ubud in his first job in Paris, he was pushed aside due to his awkwardness, with remarks like, “It’s better if you’re not helping.” While working towards his Le Cordon Bleu diploma, he was warned, “Try something else.”  After several advances to elBulli in Spain, whose chef-owner Ferran Adria was compared to surrealist artist Salvador Dali for his creativity, he persevered, and won an unpaid stage position in its pastry department.

“Hopefully, 2018 will show how some of my hard work is paying off,” Goldfarb said modestly. No kidding: his first cookbook will be published in the spring by Phaidon.  The title: Room for dessert.