Cancer Lesson #55: A Close Shave Can Be a Wonderful Thing

Cancer Lesson #55: A Close Shave Can Be Wonderful.

Every year, The Engineer, Darling Daughter and I go to Oshkosh, Wisconsin for Airventure.

This event is a celebration of aviation with over 10,000 planes and 100,000 people camping out on the field on any given night. We camp with a group of friends from all over the country, most of whom we see only at Oshkosh once a year.

This group, the Metro Warbirds, has been together for more than thirty years, (though we’ve only been part of it for the last ten). And over the years, they’ve developed some traditions.

One of these is brät night, complete with Wisconsin bratwurst, corn on the cob, and polka music. Metro Warbirds, old and new, and many guests join in the yearly tradition.

Then, as dusk falls, Bernie, master of all things ceremonial, asks us to look toward the sunset and join him in remembering those who have “gone west.”

We quietly gaze at the sky, each of us mentally reciting a litany of friends we have lost this year.



Buffy’s father.

All who are now gone.

The sun sinks below the horizon, and Bernie’s voice raises again in words that have become familiar to us all.

“The clock of life is wound but once, and no man has the power, to tell just when the hands will stop, at late or early hour … The present only is our own. Live, love, toil with a will. Place no faith in tomorrow, for the clock may then be still.”*

But during my cancer year, Bernie added something new. Pulling out a package of index cards, he instructed several teens to hand them out to everyone.

“Tonight,” he said, throwing his hat to the ground, “we’re going to help the American Cancer Society in their quest for a cure.”

He urged us to write down a dollar amount on our card, the amount that we would donate in the next year, and we began fumbling for pens, passing them on after writing our numbers and throwing the cards into the hat.

My eyes soon brimmed as full as the hat, and still Bernie – a cancer survivor himself – wasn’t done.

To honor these pledges, and all who have fought cancer, he pulled up a camp chair with a dramatic flourish, seated himself, and announced  “A Cut for the Cure.”

Tiger, one of the Arkansas contingent and a barber in real life, pulls out his electric razor.

The Engineer follows, then Rand from California, and Mike the margarita maker. Mississippi, who cooks the best barbecue in Illinois, is followed by his son Robert.

Robert ends up with a temporary Mohawk but Tiger eventually relents and cuts off the middle before Tom the Colorado beekeeper is seated for his turn.

Next is Sir William, who flies for United, clutching my hand for moral support, and then I lose track.

A kid I’ve never seen before is shorn. Maybe he just wanted a free cut.

Cameras flash, probably reflecting off our bald heads.

My friend Steve make the cut. Later he tells me he did it to honor both Dale and me.

Another guy I haven’t met. This is getting a little weird. Still, I can’t stop crying. I understand this night is for all who have fought cancer, but I also know that includes me.

I’m not the only one bawling. Almost everyone here has given me an emotional — and wet — hug. Two men I’ve just met tell me, with tears in their eyes, of their wives’ battles with cancer, and I’m grateful to hear that both women are survivors.

Finally, Tiger puts away his clippers. Darling daughter, wearing her flourescent pink wig, counts up the pledges and cash. In a few short hours, the Metro Warbirds have raised more than $3300.

At least seventeen men now sport a haircut like mine, and they look like little boys who’ve just gotten their summer haircuts. I feel accepted, a little less freakish, for the first time in weeks, surrounded by smiling (and crying) people who love me.

We go to bed that night with a new Oshkosh memory, leaving only a pile of human hair near the tail of the plane in the row across from us and wondering what the owner will think when he discovers a pile of human hair while pre-flighting his plane.

But in the end no one is around to ask.



Cancer Lesson #??: Some Cancers Are Preventable

Cancer Lesson #??: Some cancers are preventable.

If you’re a woman, you have only a one in eight chance of getting breast cancer in your lifetime.

I say “only” because your chances of getting some form of cancer in your lifetime is actually one in three.

One in three.

An incredible ratio in every horrifying sense.

If you’re a man, the news is worse. You have a one in two chance of getting cancer in your lifetime.

Don’t believe me? Take a look at the chart on the American Cancer Society website (

Take heart. Although no one is 100% sure what causes every cancer, there are many things you can do to lower your risk.

This mostly involves making the logical choices you’d make if you want to live a long and healthy life. Exercise regularly. Don’t smoke. Eat a reasonable diet. Don’t drink too much.

There is one type of cancer,however, caused almost exclusively by single factor — exposure to asbestos. That cancer is mesothelioma.

Mesothelioma has a long latency period, but is extremely aggressive. This means a person could have it for years, then be diagnosed as being in a late stage of the disease when the survival rate is considerably lower.

Obviously, we need to avoid asbestos. This lowers your risk factor to almost zero.

Until I wrote this post, I thought this would be simple because asbestos is banned in the U.S., right?


Here’s what the EPA says about the material, “On July 12, 1989, the EPA issued a final rule banning most asbestos-containing products. In 1991, this regulation was overturned by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. However, as a result of the Court’s decision, only a few asbestos-containing products remain banned.” (

Also, “On July 12, 1989, EPA issued a final rule banning most asbestos-containing products. In 1991, this regulation was overturned by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans. As a result of the Court’s decision, the following specific asbestos-containing products remain banned: flooring felt, rollboard, and corrugated, commercial, or specialty paper. In addition, the regulation continues to ban the use of asbestos in products that have not historically contained asbestos, otherwise referred to as “new uses” of asbestos.” (

So, we can still be exposed, as were countless others before we knew the dangers. If someone in your family worked in the building trade, chances are they came in contact with asbestos, which means you probably did too since the fibers cling to clothing, thus invading the home.

Fortunately, there’s now a blood test that measures the biomarkers of Mesothelioma long before it can be otherwise diagnosed.  To quote the Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance, “Scientists have been working on new tests that strive to diagnose the disease at an earlier stage. For example, the Mesomark® assay is a simple blood test that measures the rate of Soluble Mesothelin-Related Peptides (SMRP) in the blood. This biomarker is released by mesothelioma cells into the bloodstream and SMRP can be elevated for many years before symptoms appear and an actual diagnosis of the disease is made.” (

As with any cancer, early diagnosis is key to survival. Catching the disease in its early stages makes it imminently more treatable, and becoming aware of the risk factors makes early diagnosis more likely.

As I said earlier, there many ways to lower your risk of getting cancer. Avoiding asbestos is certainly one of them.

For more information on this disease, visit

Cancer Lesson #35: “Cranial Prosthesis” = Wig

Cancer Lesson #35: “Cranial prosthesis” = wig.

Cancer patients can get a prescription for a cranial prosthesis, and some insurance companies will pay for at least part of the cost. I suppose if you called it a wig, they’d refuse.

In the end, I received a free wig from an American Cancer Society wig bank. Plus, my daughter sometimes let me wear two hairpieces she’d bought for fun, one in bubble gum pink and one in midnight blue and black.

These came from a shop I call the “Hooker Store.” I’m being facetious rather than pejorative because I love that store. But I’m convinced the place supplies most hookers and/or cross-dressers in Northern Ohio with whatever they need to create their version of glamour.

I also bought a wig there, chin-length in an alluring shade of magenta. Very chic! It made me smile whenever I passed a mirror, which is a very good thing when you’re in the middle of treatment for cancer.

Cancer Lesson #34: Any Port in a Storm

Cancer Lesson #34: Any port in a storm

If you’d told me, oh maybe three years ago, that I’d someday rave about having a “drum-shaped device of plastic, stainless steel, or titanium with a silicone septum” (description from American Cancer Society Website surgically placed under the skin of my upper arm. I wouldn’t have believed you. I would probably have nodded politely and scuttled away.

But cancer changes things.

If you’ve read Cancer Lesson #13, you know good veins are invaluable for treating cancer. Alas, I have none. And, since my surgery included a lymph node dissection, only my left arm can be used for that sort of thing now, which meant my choices were limited.

This goes a long way toward explaining my enthusiasm for any method of dodging the poking and prodding that I came to associate with visits to my oncologist.

A port sounded great. Hell, I’d have taken a whole port city if it meant avoiding some of the jabs of a chemo regimen.

Cancer Lesson: Life Is a Relay

Cancer Lesson:  Life is a relay.

I haven’t assigned a number to this cancer lesson because it’s out of order in the story of the lessons I’ve learned. It’s actually a repeat of a post I wrote for my other blog last year. I’m sharing it here because tonight I participated in the 2013 Relay for Life. Beside me walked my friend who was in chemo during last year’s year’s event, as well as a another who was diagnosed just before it. Life is indeed a relay. 

I participated in Relay for Life this weekend, representing my library’s team on the track for an hour last night and during the final shift this morning.

Of course, my thoughts traveled back to the 2011 event, when I was in chemo and able to attend only as a spectator. Unfortunately, this year a good friend of mine was the cancer patient visiting our tent, and we all walked at least partly for her.

As part of Relay fundraising, you can buy luminarias in honor or memory of those who have fought cancer. These candles are lit after dark, and each name is called as participants silently circumnavigate the track.

English: OAK HARBOR, Wash. (June 6, 2008) Lumi...

English: OAK HARBOR, Wash. (June 6, 2008) Luminaries line the Oak Harbor Middle School track for the Relay For Life of North Whidbey. Relay For Life is a fundraiser held by the American Cancer Society to raise money for cancer research and to promote cancer awareness. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Tucker M. Yates (Released) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It is a particularly poignant ceremony, and I cried for my two friends who died last year and my cousin and friend who are now in treatment. Still, I was grateful for the opportunity to pay back some of the support I received during my own fight, and amazed by the difference a year has made.

This morning, the atmosphere was different. The number of people on the track had dwindled, some of them clearly exhausted from the night before.
But they were still walking.

And finally, it struck me — the lesson my mind had been knitting together over the past twenty-four hours.

It’s this: Life is not a sprint or even a marathon; it’s a relay.

Sometimes we lead so others can rest. Other times, we can take it no longer, and someone else must take charge and be the strong one.

I remember a colleague from many years ago telling me how she and her father dealt with her mother’s long-term illness. “We have a rule,” she said, “only one of us can be crazy at a time.”

At the time, I was a relatively new parent, and thought that was an excellent approach to the huge job my husband and I had taken on in raising our daughter.

After last night, however, I understand this philosophy can be applied much more broadly. Life’s challenges are more easily faced when we can lean on others, and let them lean on us.

I don’t know if the American Cancer Society had this in mind when they established Relay for Life, but for me the event will forever be bound with the relay that is life.