The Voracity of Death (November 16, 2014)

Early this week, a former colleague from the American Dental Association died suddenly. He went in his sleep after telling his wife in the evening that he didn’t feel well. The cause of death has not been made public, but it’s presumed to be some variation of heart attack/aneurysm/stroke. The arbitrary kind of turn that the story of life and its ending takes everyday.

Ed was in his late 50s. A few years ago, my friends and co-workers Diane and Jimmy volunteered for an Association charitable activity with me, as a change of civic pace from our usual happy hour/sushi bonding. Ed gave us all a ride in his car, which was just coated in dog hair, evidence of his pet devotion. He wasn’t the least bit concerned that we’d show up for duty at a food dispensary matted with health code violations. Ed was a weird, smart dude who loved a good debate and really didn’t worry about what people thought. I like weird, smart dudes. The world will be a little less interesting without him.

Later in the week, semi-famous reality TV star Diem Brown died at age 32 after a nine-year battle with ovarian cancer. This was on my radar in part because of a long and somewhat embarrassing love affair with MTV’s The Challenge, a competition series featuring former cast members from reality groundbreakers The Real World and Road Rules. I have a ceaseless appetite for frenemy tropes and the drunken, televised antics of my generation (and slightly younger people). It has a way of reinforcing that my own life choices are imperfectly acceptable.

There have been a bevy of seasons over the last decade with absurd “storylines,” fights and stomach churning behavior. What can I say? I traffic in highbrow and lowbrow in equal parts. But one narrative elicited no schadenfreude from viewers: the ongoing health battles of Diem Brown and her touching on again, off again relationship with ultimate sexy bad boy, CT Tamburello. Diem was always a competitor first, a conflicted lover second and a cancer patient third. CT brought out the best in Diem and never allowed her to hide her feelings or her chemo-induced baldness, even as he continued to make mistakes that drove them apart. They were an easy and beautiful pair for whom to root, and I always believed that once they finished sewing their respective wild oats, these two crazy kids would figure it out.

As of Friday, it is clear they’ll never have the opportunity. After her third battle with ovarian cancer, Diem succumbed to the disease, after devoting the best years of her young life to fighting it.

Of course all of this made me think of Jesika. Of ovarian cancer and how I might hate this killer above all others. The silent, hungry assassin sneaks up on the body, even the most carefully monitored and healthy ones, eating them slowly until it’s too late. All the while, the host feels just fine…until she doesn’t. And in too many cases, as the disease’s average age of onset continues to decline, she doesn’t get to marry the love of her life, or reach the full height of her cultivated career, or make a huge mess of it all and start over. She doesn’t get to do anything at all.

Ovarian cancer also claimed my paternal grandmother June, when she was in her 60s. I was there in her Wisconsin home-turned-hospice staging area in the summer of 1991. I was 12 years old watching her waste away, struggle to breathe. Grandma Crowley had six full-grown children and numerous grandkids. She’d been a great beauty who loved a good Manhattan. She’d lived. But that didn’t make it any easier to bear the live and needless suffering of one of the few adults who really gave a damn about my sister and I.

So much pain and death this week – for the living and those who experienced a karmic fluke or lost a war. So much futile anger and fervent wishing with no outlet. Such an inability to pull out a more profound lesson than the trite and oft-repeated warning to make every moment count.

Planning for the future is important. Some of us excel in the exercise, obsess about it. It’s a comforting illusion of control, a ritual we must repeat instead of scanning our environment fearfully or repeatedly rushing to the exam table. We will make our imprint. We will not be forgotten. We will not succumb to panic.

But the acts of living, of building, of wanting and working can, and often will be interrupted, painfully and prematurely. And there’s nothing we can do about it. That’s the truth. And it hurts.


An Ode to Cancer: On Year Later (June 12, 2012)

You came to my door
When I was getting divorced.
You couldn’t have picked a messier time.

I walked around in a daze
Feeling crazed,
Because even after she said the words I felt fine.

Surgery was scheduled,
Estranged spouses bedeviled,
Unable to work together.

Recovery alone
In my studio home.
Thought I’d be “that poor woman” forever.

After a week and a day,
Back on my way,
Like it never happened at all.

Until the divorce was done
And the new underwriter won,
A “pre-existing condition” free fall.

You went in remission
And I accepted the condition
That I had been wasting my hours.

With putting those first
Who were often worst
Letting mind and body go sour.

So I focused on work,
Learned to admire my quirks
Fell in love again with my friends.

And I learned to say “yes”
To almost any quest,
And with past wrongs make amends.

So maybe I should thank you,
You created a milieu,
To foment a real rebellion.

You couldn’t hold me down,
And now that I’m found,
I see a lovable hellion.

America’s Health Care System is Still Broken Part II (April 24, 2012)




I will keep writing about this because I am one of the lucky ones. I will keep screaming about the system’s inherent abusiveness because I can and I must – for all those who are sicker, less financially solvent and don’t have a forum in which their voices may be heard.

Nearly a year ago, I wrote this post, recounting the stress of divorce compounded by unexpected health news of the unfavorable kind. After being diagnosed with Stage 2A cervical cancer, I learned that I was considered persona non grata by prospective health insurance providers until I was in remission. At the time, I received the core-rattling news that none of my women’s health needs would be covered for 3-5 years, or until the part of Obamacare that forbids insurance companies from playing pre-existing condition roulette with people’s lives takes over in January 2013.

Since I wrote the first post in this series last year, a few important events have occurred:

  1. I underwent a successful procedure in June, 2011 that completely removed all cancerous cells from my body – no chemo or radiation required. A six-month checkup in December found no evidence of irregular growth.
  2. I have since gotten into the healthiest shape of my life. I was already no slouch in the exercise department, but have taken the upkeep of my temple in whole new directions. I have learned, through therapy and hard work, to better manage stress. I am invested in a romantic partnership that brings untold levels of peace and satisfaction. I am more careful about what I put into my body and my approach to preventive medicine has changed completely.
  3. I am officially divorced, no longer on my ex’s insurance plan and employed full-time at a housewares manufacturer with great benefits.

As I have already indicated, I was fully prepared for my women’s health coverage to be excluded for 2012. Whether I think the situation is fair or not (not) is irrelevant. You know the saying, “it is what it is.” I was planning to bide my time, and though I am not religious, ask Mother Earth to keep the cancer at bay. My single-adult premiums on the new policy amount to $6,000 annually and while I felt forced into a “cross your fingers” strategy as pertained to the cancer, at least I would be covered under all other circumstances right? Wrong.

The new Big Brother in my healthcare decision-making world, a company that will remain nameless but rhymes with Dew Toss, Dew Field of Iroquois, has declared a blanket “pre-existing condition clause” that covers EVERYTHING for which I have ever been treated. Surprise! This clause runs the full calendar year, so I have the honor of forking over $6,000 in the event I am shot or hit by a bus (neither of which has ever happened), but if I need therapy (you know because I was depressed about having cancer), antibiotics, birth control or my first annual cancer screening – all of that must come out of my pocket. My doctor and I jumped through numerous hoops and made many arguments, to no avail. A girl who rides her bike 68 miles to work and back, under the age 35 with the bad luck to get a little spot of cancer last year, is reduced to nothingness until 2013.

And as we all know today, the conclusion above represents the best-cased scenario. Subsequent to the decision by a bunch of corporate bureaucrats that I am too risky for any sort of benefits, though my money is still welcome, a bunch of mostly old ,white men on the Supreme Court will sit in judgment of my fate beyond this calendar year. By June we are told, the ladies and gentlemen of the jury will decide whether to throw the baby out with the bathwater on health care reform, because a few hundred lobbyists and Tea Party crackpots chafe against the individual mandate portion.

So we can make car insurance as a condition of vehicle ownership law, but this is somehow different? Can they really declare that no part of the reform benefits the American people? What about the part where, I don’t know, insurance companies can’t refuse you access to ALL TYPES OF HEALTHCARE because you had a treatable cancer that was cured in one shot?

If the Supreme Court overturns Obamacare, I am out in the cold for 5 years, perhaps longer if an emboldened insurance syndicate decides so. I can’t believe this is America.

About the Supreme Court’s deliberations, the Daily Beast remarked in November of last year, “By agreeing to rule on the issue of national health care, the Supreme Court foolishly politicizes its deliberation process and needlessly damages its own reputation.”

But this is about more than a simple PR misstep, the negation of jurisprudence. This is about American rights and lives. I think I have a patriotic duty to protest my provider’s current right to kill or bankrupt me in the unfortunate event that my cancer recurs, or that I come down with the flu and need antibiotics and a short hospital stay. I want the Supreme Court to consider that with the same fervor with which they seem to regard a libertarian’s right to refuse health coverage when that refusal burdens everyone else.

Pseudo Cancer (June 5, 2011)

Is it possible to experience survivor’s guilt before even going under the knife? If so, that’s what I’m dealing with at the moment. I tried explaining this feeling to my friend Diane on Friday evening. A few years ago, Diane developed a tumor in her chest that began to push on her lungs. Months of surgery, chemotherapy and hair loss ensued, and I am proud to say that my pal is awhile past the coveted five-year remission milestone. Diane is a singer/songwriter, artist, writer, and all around beautiful and fabulous woman. The world needs her.

Two years ago, I lost one of my best friends, Jesika, to a lightening quick 17-day battle with Stage 4 ovarian cancer, At the time, 30 year-old Jes was a lawyer, recent Chicago transplant, and impending bride-to-be. She was just beginning the best parts of her life, and her fast demise remains an epic tragedy for many who loved her.

I have Stage 2 cervical cancer. But big deal. I am having surgery this coming Tuesday morning, and there is every reason to believe that I will be absolutely fine afterward – no additional radiation, procedures or body-wracking chemo required. I will immediately move from patient to recovery in the span of two hours.

Except for the occasional bouts of depression which are only tangentially related to living with the disease, and far more associated with feelings of confusion and loss stemming from my impending divorce, I feel absolutely fine. And somehow, for lack of a better word, that just seems….wrong.

Last Sunday I rode 30 miles in Chicago’s annual Bike the Drive event along Lake Shore Drive. My conception of people battling cancer doesn’t allow for that picture of vitality. I have lost a few pounds recently, but again, that is to be blamed on poor eating habits and grief, rather than debilitating sickness. I am able to work, to write, to meet friends for drinks and attend family events. I am not flat on my back, shrunken and surrounded by pill bottles, as I recall of my grandmother June when she succumbed to ovarian cancer herself back in 1991.

Today happens to be National Cancer Survivor’s Day, a time of reflection and deserved celebration for those who have conquered the disease in its myriad forms. It is also a day to recognize the family, friends and partners who stood by each of these brave people and ushered them out the other side. I cannot count myself as one of the survivors yet, but even after I am released from the hospital on Tuesday, I’m not sure I have the right to join the party.

There are those in my corner who bolster me with accolades about my strength and fortitude. But I don’t feel either of those things. In fact I have been rather, weak, scared and anti-social, far more wounded and fear-stricken by the idea of spending the rest of my life alone, rather than afraid of not having a life at all. Does this sound like the average cancer patient?

Like so many other social groups: wives, mothers, workers and now battlers of the Big C, I feel oddly anachronistic. It’s another area of our cultural fabric where I feel somewhat alienated, meeting the criteria and yet not quite what is expected. Don’t misunderstand me. It’s not that I wish I were sicker. I have enough other problems to wrestle. I just don’t know my place.