Eularee Smith
Writer & Educator

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The Year That Went Sideways

Sounds like a great title for a book or a movie, but alas, it seems to best capture the year 2016. Generations have been affected by the loss of so many musicians this year, from Glenn Fry to David Bowie, Leonard Cohen to Prince. I am sure Paul McCartney and Keith Richards are anxiously awaiting the ball to drop before they do.

Everything that we thought would go this way, went that way. It was like dancing with a partner who has two left feet, awkwardly waiting for our toes to be crushed, or dropped in a dip. The loss of a long time job, the pain of a wayward partner, the death of a friend or in my case, a cousin. Even the garden did not grow as it normally does. Would you believe I only had one zuchinni all season? 

I won't even try to dodge the elephant in the room in regards to the political upset of the century. If we needed proof that this was the year that wasn't, we need look no further. It impacted a nation, friends and family, seniors and children. We were all blindsided, hit sideways even until the final count.

You would think the return of cancer would be my biggest sideways move this year, and in some ways, that would be true. Despite a few months of absolute hell and fear for family, I stepped sideways and beat the odds yet again. I don't say this with pride, but with amazement. My beloved Cubs won the World Series, despite moments of doubt and frustration. There are few moments more precious to me than underdogs rising rounding homeplate before the fat lady sings.

If this year teaches us anything, it is that anything can happen and for the most part, will. They say what doesn't kill you, makes you stronger. I am not sure that is a good epitaph for 2016. We may be happy to see it go, but the reality is we have no idea what 2017 has up her sleeve. For some this was a banner year. I have mixed feelings since I survived, but yet even the smallest of things, like the breaking of a favorite ornament, remind me that every day is precious. What is here today, may be gone tomorrow. 

The takeaway from 2016 should not be one of relief but of resolution. Enjoy each day, each person, each moment be they trial or triumph. For without love, we can't possibly know what hate looks like. Without sorrow, we are unable to experience joy. For each tear shed, laughter was that much sweeter. Let's resolve to remember the sense of community this year uncovered. Let's agree to disagree and work diligently to listen and work together for the common good. May the close of next year, be one we look back on say, "that wasn't so bad."

Wishing you all, a year that won't be so bad!


You Got A Friend In Me

As the State of our Union comes under suspicion and fear, I find myself relatively calm before the storm. The past few months not only brought about a contested political furor, it was also a horrific battle between cancer and me. I literally stared the C monster in the face and as in any alien horror movie, it was a death defying battle.

Time and again, as the battle waged, there were family, friends and neighbors, that stepped in to hold me, feed me, drive me, sit with me overnight, caring for me when I was unable to care for myself. Beyond the pain, the challenge for me was to learn to let go. I had to make tough decisions to take a leave of absence from work, turning over favorite projects that I had begun but was unable to complete. I learned that asking for help was not a sign of weakness but one of courage and vulnerability, to admit I was truly unable. At every request, and often times before I could voice a need, there was someone there.

One in particular, stands out because it was so unexpected and now stands as a reminder to me, that together there is nothing we can't overcome. My neighbors invited me over to see a project they were working on. They were making fence panels. Not just any fence panels, but artistically designed and masterfully executed panels. My compliments on the sheer beauty of the project, changed to amazement, when these neighbors told me they were going to replace our old fence as a gift. Speechless, I tried to decline the offer as too much and I would pay my share. They insisted it was their way of taking care of me.

Everyday, as I step into my backyard, or pull into the driveway, I see a monument, a different kind of wall. Not one of division, but a tribute that says we have friends, community, and family. We have a committment to family, friends and community to stand together and let them know that whatever lies ahead for our country, this is a time to be kind to each other, offering help before criticism. We need to remind our children and lead by example. A hand out, is a hand up for us all. 

I have since come through my horrific smackdown with cancer. Still battling, but the big C has definitely backed down and the light at the end of the tunnel is now in full view. As Thanksgiving ends, let's hang on to that which, for a few days, seems to bring us together, rather than apart. Stand up. Stand together as a community, a state of our own union. We will survive but more importantly, we will roar back by joining hands, making sure that nieghbors, friends and family know that they got a friend in me. 


Vanity, thy name is mine

I have never thought of myself as vain. I am not much of a clotheshorse, as my mother or mother in law will tell you. A particular coat comes to mind, when I was about 14 years old. It was black and white, hood and zipper front. I thought it was the coolest thing ever, but my mother thought it was hideous. She told me if she bought I would have to wear it, no take backs. I wore it everywhere! I wear what I like, style and fashion be damned.

I think of myself as a tomboy. I live in my jeans. I would rather be outside than inside. Getting dirty was always half the fun of anything I did, whether it was on the baseball field or in the garden. Dolls were never my thing. Never cared much for jewelry and it was a rare occasion you would find me in a pair of high heels. But here I am feeling like not only has my body betrayed me, but my sense of who I am seems to be deeply tied to some sort of feminine mystique that has me frustrated, sad and self conscious about the way I look.

Cancer has robbed me of my female identity. The first go around was twenty five years ago with a mastectomy. I have always been slender and wore form fitting clothes. Wearing something loose or baggy made me look like a starved waif. After the mastectomy, it was years of wearing maternity tops to keep clothes from touching the scars. The pain of wearing fitted clothes was unbearable. I was 39 and struggled with the loss, the treatment and recovery, coping with what I thought was a muster of grace and dignity. I was grateful for my life, but like many women, the loss of my breast was a grieving process that both surprised me and horrified me. My husband was very supportive. It was never about him. It was about me. I had never considered that my body was beautiful or even attractive for that matter and yet, now, it was difficult to reconcile this new shape as my own.

Fast forward to ovarian cancer. The mass was so great that it impacted almost every organ in my lower quadrant. The surgeon not only had to perform a hysterectomy, but removed part of the colon. I am cut open from stem to stern and although I had no illusions of wearing a bikini again, the length of the scar is such that wearing jeans is restrictive and painful. Again, I find myself robbed not only of the last of my feminine parts, but I can no longer wear any of my clothes. An identity I have had for over 50 years. I hated being in dresses or skirts. Too girly and certainly not me. Yet, I am packing all my jeans and button pants, and heading to the Goodwill.

Now most women, would be thrilled to get a new wardrobe. I see it as yet another loss to recover from and a challenge to make friends with my new body shape. My doctor recommended a book called A Memoir of A Debulked Woman by Susan Gubar. She recounts her own struggle with the radical ovarian cancer surgery and the changes her bodied endured. It is downloading to my Kindle reader as I write.

It is not that I feel alone in this process but I am surprised that vanity was never a trait I thought I possessed. Yet here I am, sometimes teary, at how unhappy I am with my "new normal", as the doctor puts it. How do I begin to reconcile the picture in my mind of who I am and what I look like, with the image in the mirror? To heck with the gray hair, I am no longer slender, but square. I am wearing dresses and soft clothes (as opposed to denim and khaki). The loss of my hair with chemo was not as big an issue despite the fact I have always had long hair, but it is coming back in thick, curly and slowly. It looks like a bush on my head. So many things that make me want to hide, especially when people tell me how great I look. Are they blind? Do they not remember? Or do they see what they want to see...a survivor. A beauty that lies so deep within that no amount of clothes or hair can mask it? So deep that even I can't see it?

So here I am, about to have my 65th birthday and feeling like I am starting all over again to "find myself". Perhaps this is a gift I need to give myself. It is okay to be vain. It is right and true to feel vulnerable and self conscious. I am woman with a tomboy attitude and hopefully a little grace and dignity left to find something in my closet that I feel good in. Who needs mirrors anyway? 


Mindfulness. Is There an App for That?

This week I read another story about twins who were left in a car and died. Without pointing fingers, I must admit this tragedy is beyond my comprehension. Yet, more often than we care to admit, forgetfulness ends in a tragic circumstance that seems incredibly avoidable. Why?

It seems we are so caught up in the rush of life, that we crush ourselves with 7 minute workouts, 10,000 steps, or 10 minute meals. As childen, we were given a list of daily chores, that were somehow designed to teach us discipline and more importantly, a work ethic. If your bed was made and your room was tidy, you were on the road to having a successful day. Tricks, I suppose, to keep children from being lazy sots. An idle mind is the devil's workshop, sort of philosophy. Technology had all the promise and none of the follow through to make our lives easier and more productive. More productive has lead to an impossible demand on our time, and unfortunately our sanity.

We are more forgetful as a whole, than ever before. We used to blame it on age, but I no longer buy that theory, despite the rise in dementia and Alzheimers. These are diseases that plague the mind, but are not the type of forgetfulness that has become epidemic at earlier and earlier ages. This is not the forgetfulness that sends you back to your child's school in a panic, because they forgot their homework, or rushing to get them the lunch they left on the kitchen counter. This is adults with multiple schedules, appointments, meetings, reports and to do lists that have literally created a cascade effect in our brains erupting into momentary black outs.

It can be as simple as, did I turn the water off or the iron, or the stove. Where is my phone, my purse, or my keys? We simply don't remember the last thing we did, or wore, or said, because so much has happened in between and so much more is left to be done. We depend on our phones to remember for us with calendars, notes, contacts, in essence our life on device. The loss of that device would be a tragic circumstance that quite possibly we can not recover. Did you know that the majority of phone loss is in the toilet? Why are we taking our phones into the bathroom? Is there no place that is truly device free? Has technology so handcuffed us that even reaching for toilet paper can upset our world entirely?

Despite our best efforts to be more connected to the world, we have at the same time disconnected ourselves from the things that matter the most to us. I watch people going out for dinner or in the movies, at the ball game, and there is a phone in their hand. I am not immune, nor do I preach because I have the answer. But one thought does come to mind. Being mindful. If only for a minute a day, perhaps watching what we do, instead of watching for the next thing to do, we could nourish our minds with restful thinking. I will put my keys on the counter and my purse on the chair. I will watch my children play, rather than watch them through my phone and post to Facebook. I will commit to memory the phone number of my friend so I can call them just to say hello, how have you been. I will strap my children into the car seat knowing it is just a trip to the market, or the post office, and I will be taking them out of the seat shortly, rather than running in because I only have 15 minutes between errands. 

Instead of looking ahead, of letting our lives be scheduled so tight we don't have time to think, maybe we should put an alert in our device that says stop and smell a rose. Perhaps we need an app that goes off every few hours that reminds us to breathe, to smile, to call our mother or a friend just to say hello. Maybe it could alert us to be mindful once a day, like a Fit Bit for the brain. It's a thought and as technology progresses even faster, most likely a fleeting one.

What if just today, you were mindful? Professor Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachussets Medical Center has demonstrated that practicing mindfulness brings improvements in both physical and psychological symptoms and creates positive changes in health attitudes and our behavior. So many practices include a meditative process or have some religious focus, but that isn't necessary to achieve results. For me, my garden is my fortress of solitude. Taking a moment to see there are flowers budding, tiny cucumbers emerging or the tangle of weeds demanding my immediate attention, is a mind and body building workout without the weekend warrior results the next day.

We choose to text and drive, rather than be aware of the car changing lanes in front of us. We check our messages, rather than talk to the person across the table from us. We plug in to tune out. Just for giggles, let's try to unplug to tune in. Like any lifestyle change, it takes time. But isn't that what technology is supposed to do? To free up our time to be, well, more mindful? Now that's how technology should work.


Powdered Bums

As a cancer survivor, every article, newscast, social media post, or rumor perks your curiosity. I try to focus on the positive research, survival rates and new treatment protocols, but inevitably one crazy development jumps into the mix. 

TV ads are blaring out the news that baby powder has a direct link to ovarian cancer. Since I have been there, still doing that and have the T-shirt, this would, of course, get my attention. My daughters are questioning my life long practice of using baby powder since my diagnosis, and knowing that it is the only source of personal hygiene in my bathroom since I was a teenager. I am highly allergic to deodorants, perfumes, lotions, and most fragrant soaps and girly adornments. Baby powder has been the one staple that I have been able to use without fear of side effects. 

Rather than panic, especially since these ads seem to favor litigators, not survivors, I decided to do my due diligence and research the allegations. There is little evidence to support the theory that the use of baby powder or talc is cause for ovarian cancer. Moving on, I spoke to my oncologist, Dr. Charles Anderson, who is also the head of a study on the effects of Keytruda on ovarian cancer. His thoughts were interesting.

Apparently, the theory of talc powder causing cancer is one of the first things Dr. Anderson said they are taught in medical school. The theory has existed for decades, but there is no evidential science or research to support the theory. The reason it has become such news now, is because litigation has made it ripe for the picking. If there were supportive evidence, such as in the case of cigarettes and lung cancer, talc powder would have been removed from products or certainly have warning labels. We know cigarettes can lead to lung cancer, and yet we still sell them. Alcohol is linked to liver disease, and yet we still sell it. It is not surprising that baby powder has been around, but that there is no scientific evidence to prove its harmful nature, seems curious.

Here is my theory. And please, remember this is only the theory of a lay person. I, too, have no science to back up my thoughts on the subject. I am not discounting anyone's experience. That being said, babies have been doused with talc powder for generations. Johnson & Johnson have been around for decades and are the leaders in baby and family products. Sure, they could be hiding evidence that talc powder is harmful to protect their company brand. The real question is why? Could they produce a baby powder without talc? Yes, and they do. Could generations of babies be at risk? Why is there not an epidemic of powdered bums in oncologists offices around the world? Why wouldn't these doctors raise a red flag?

Use common sense. If you are concerned, stop using baby powder. Make your own. My grandmother used corn starch. I don't advocate turning a blind eye. But, I honestly believe that cancer is a crap shoot. We are all vulnerable. From our environment to our food, plastics to treated wood, solvents, household cleaners...the list goes on and on. I have known people who never smoked a day in their life getting lung cancer. I have known people who smoke like chimneys all their lives and never get cancer. What I do know is, if you live a healthy life, eat properly, exercise, you will have the right stuff to fight should cancer come calling.

Life is not a spectator sport. Do your homework, and don't feed the monster. Love those around you. Take care of the business of living each day to the fullest. Enjoy the small things, because in the end, they are the most precious. Pack your bag with laughter, blessings and FUN! Let the rest of it go. 

Just my two cents, from the chemo chair.