Monday, April 30, 2012

Cancer Awareness Memoirs

A more serious post today but one I felt compelled to put out there. Never know, there might be something in these books that someone going through a tough time really finds comfort in.

How do you slip back into the ordinary world? That was the problem confronting me after cancer, and the old saying, that you should treat each day as if it might be your last, was no help at all. The truth is, it's a nice sentiment, but in practice it doesn't work. If I lived only for the moment, I'd be a very amiable no-account with a perpetual three-day growth on my chin. Trust me, I tried it. People think of my comeback as a triumph, but in the beginning, it was a disaster. When you have lived for an entire year terrified of dying, you feel like you deserve to spend the rest of your days on a permanent vacation. You can't, of course; you have to return to your family, your peers, and your profession. But a part of me didn't want my old life back. 
*Lance Armstrong on surviving cancer 

I don't know that there are too many people left in the world who have not been affected by a cancer diagnosis in some way, either being the patient themselves or a family member / friend of the patient. Cancer has been pretty prevalent in my own life. My grandfather battled different cancers going in and out of remission for most of my life before finally succumbing in 2008. My mother and I have both had cancer "scares" with breast and cervical cancers (meaning it looked like something bad on an initial test but thankfully proved to be nothing dangerous on further tests). It's awful, frightening, infuriating... but between my own experiences and my past work around hospitals and hospice facilities, I am a firm believer in the power of faith, hope and determination. Does it guarantee a perfect outcome? No, not at all. Of course I know nothing is guaranteed. But I have seen plenty of instances where having such faith and determination do wonders to boost the odds of survival and winning back the quality of life one wants and deserves. These books showcase the power of not giving up ...

both by Olympic Medalist / Cyclist Lance Armstrong

Armstrong wrote It's Not About The Bike first, this being a memoir half about his cycling career, half about his cancer diagnosis and subsequent battle and how each affected every other aspect of his life, relationships, marriage, etc. As with most memoirs, Armstrong also divulges information about his life that isn't all that mainstream -- such as the fact that he's never met or even seen a picture of his biological father. His parents were together but split up soon after Lance's conception. Lance's mom ended up remarrying a man by the name of Terry Armstrong, giving Lance his famous last name but that relationship became strained during Lance's adulthood. It was my impression, while I read this, that this may have what led Lance to develop such a driving, independently minded personality. He doesn't expect help or handouts from anyone. While I certainly respect that, I have to say his tone came off a little "in your face". From page one, I was thinking "why is this guy sounding so defensive to his readers, most of whom he's never going to meet or have to answer to?" But don't let that sway you from hearing his story. He's got some good stuff here. Armstrong even admits in some sections that he may not be the most easy-going, approachable guy all the time. His celebrity persona (you know, the one in all those beer commercials and whatnot) seems pretty chill, and I'm sure he is when he gets to be around his family in his native Austin, Texas, but he's also incredibly serious and focused most of the time. So maybe he's not the biggest social butterfly out there but considering he's taken on and won the world's most difficult and grueling bicycle race in the world 7 FREAKIN' TIMES then yeah, one can understand his tunnel vision tendencies.

the yellow jersey, known as the maillot jaune, identifies the leader 
of the team,did you know the leader is determined after each 
day's race? So each race means the current leader has to prove
 himself with the best time all over again within their own team as
 well as compete against the other teams in the race!
I wonder if Queen's "Under Pressure" is on Lance's iPod :-P

I liked that Lance tried to incorporate humor into his book while talking about such heavy topics. Particularly with his cancer stories, while it may not have been funny at the time, it was a little funny to me how he describes going to a urologist after noticing one of his testicles was, as he described it, the size of an orange! The urologist's response after examining Lance? "This looks a little suspicious." I'm sorry but that's funny in its ridiculousness. I know had I been in a similar situation, my initial response in hearing a doctor say that would be "Really... that's your professional opinion. I drove all the way downtown to your office to hear that... ". And that stellar observation was the start of Lance's battle against testicular cancer. Wondering how he ended up having so many kids after coming out of that hell? He explains that too. I also appreciated how honest he was about everything. Right up front he tells the reader he's not sugar-coating anything and you can either read what he has to say or move on to another book. I didn't always like how he treated people trying to help him, especially the way he snapped at oncology nurses just trying to do their job, but I'm sure he's probably got moments he's not proud of... and  at times his arrogance annoyed me, he'd write about how much he'd learned about humility but then he would recall moments that displayed vain, disrespectful behavior. BUT... he did say he wanted to be honest with this book.

Why did I ride when I had cancer? Cycling is so hard, the suffering is so intense, that it's absolutely cleansing. You can go out there with the weight of the world on your shoulders, and after a six-hour ride at a high pain threshold, you feel at peace. The pain is so deep and strong that a curtain descends over your brain. At least for awhile you have a kind of hall pass, and don't have to brood on your problems; you can shut everything else out, because the effort and subsequent fatigue are absolute. There is an unthinking simplicity in something so hard, which is why there's probably some truth to the idea that all world-class athletes are running away from something. Once, someone asked me what pleasure I took in riding for so long. "Pleasure?" I said. "I don't understand the question." I didn't do it for pleasure. I did it for pain.

Alec Baldwin's "God Complex" speech in 
the 1993 film MALICE. Lances writes that 
during his cancer treatments, he was often reminded
of this scene. 
Livestrong - Lance Armstrong's foundation to raise funds for cancer research

Lance is retired from cycling now but he says during his TDF days, 
he burned through an average of 10-12 liters of fluids and 
6000 calories EVERY day he was racing!

I think my favorite part of this book (and I'm probably a little biased here) were Lance's stories about training in Boone, North Carolina.. which is just minutes from the town where my husband grew up, Beech Mountain (in fact, Lance trained ON Beech Mtn and had his vitals checked and tests run at Appalachian State University in Boone). Long before his TDF days, Lance was competing in the Tour DuPont, a grueling uphill race held from 1991-1996, part of which ran through Boone and Beech Mtn. If you're ever in the area, take a look at the steepness of those hills. It's hard to really appreciate that kind of dedication to a sport til you see that environment up close. I remember once, during the first year my husband and I were dating, we decided to go take the dogs for a walk around the neighborhood on Beech Mtn -- and yes, there is a town built ON the mountain. That walk was the hardest dog walk of my life! And I was just walking! But if you're not acclimated to it, the elevation will sneak up and clothes-line you. 

"Viva Armstrong" and other motivation phrases were painted along the road heading up 
to the town of Beech Mountain ( Elevation 5506 ft - highest town in 
Eastern United States)

Years later, when Lance revisits Boone, he had actually been semi-retired when he, with some coercion from his coaches, decided it was time to get back in the game. He talks about how those first trial runs back on the road kicked his ass. Given some time, a little bit of training on Beech Mtn and another batch of tests and he ends up breaking the odometer on the test bike, he was moving so fast!

I passed the rest of the trip in a state of near-reverence for those beautiful, peaceful, soulful mountains. The rides were demanding and quiet and I rode with a pure love of the bike, until Boone began to feel like the Holy Land to me, a place I had come to on a pilgrimage. If I ever have any serious problems again, I know that I will go back to Boone and find an answer. I got my life back on those rides. 

He even named his dog Boone and his cat Chemo! 

I thought this was pretty cool! This path, on the TDF route, floods 2x a day
every day during high tide. Also each year, the Foulees de Gois, a foot race,
is held, a race which STARTS at high tide. The path leads to the island of 

And a bit of comic relief in the middle of a heavy topic.... Armstrong points out that one of the biggest dangers to cyclists are motorists. Wonder if he ever had an Eric Idle moment... 

In Every Second Counts, we learn more about Lance's personal life, the good and the bad. By the time of this book, he is nearly free and clear of any fear of cancer coming back, though he reveals that he had to have check ups twice a year every year for 5 years before the doctor officially deemed him "cancer free". The first book documented the birth of his first son, this book discusses the birth of his twin daughters.

This book was a much shorter read, but I didn't find it as interesting as It's Not About The Bike. The writing felt more self-indulgent to me. I get that it's a memoir and to a certain extent, you have to expect a little of that "you can't imagine what I went through tone" but I just don't want to be beaten over the head with it. Still, I did enjoy the stories about his Olympic days -- Barcelona in 1992, Atlanta in 1996 and Sydney in 2000. In Barcelona, he said he was "a young, inexperienced hothead"; in Atlanta his lungs were riddled with cancerous tumors, but he hadn't been diagnosed yet. He said he "felt like I was dragging a manhole cover" trying to keep up with everyone; in Sydney he was hit with glitches and mishaps galore but still managed to take home Olympic bronze in cycling. 

2000 Olympics Bronze Medal

You should always honor your fiercest opponent: the better your opponent, the better you have to be. ~~ Lance Armstrong

Aside from the Olympics recollections, I also smiled at his impressions of NYC firefighters post 9/11. Being married to a firefighter myself, I was impressed that he got what these guys are really like. They're not the oiled up, bare chested, axe-wielding calendar guys they're made out to be -- least not while they're on duty... right hon? ;-D But after visiting 10 different firehouses in NYC, Armstrong notes:

Some people think heroism is a reflex, an anti-death knee jerk. Some people think heroism is a desire to matter, to be of use. Then there is the quieter heroism of "going to work every day and making a living for one's family," as New York mayor Rudolph Guiliani said of those people who died in those buildings. By the end of that trip, I decided it was some combination of the three. But whatever it was, these guys had it. 


Another really great memoir relating to cancer that I've read recently is Gilda Radner's book, It's Always Something. There's a good deal of humor in this book, as one might expect from an SNL legend, but there's also some pretty moving, bittersweet moments where she admits the toll her illness took on her marriage to Gene Wilder, friendships, family members, even on her work relationships. But I think the biggest thing I took away from reading this book is remembering the joy in small pleasures -- a happy look on the face of your dog, a trip to a favorite place, the days when the air is the perfect temperature and you couldn't feel more blessed. 

"Never let a gynecologist put anything up your nose." ~ quote from one of Gilda's nurses after a procedure mishap.

While we have the gift of life, it seems to me the only tragedy is to allow part of us to die -- whether it is our spirit, our creativity or our glorious uniqueness. 
~~ Gilda Radner 

Gary Allan - Life Ain't Always Beautiful
(But It's A Beautiful Ride)
one of my all time favorite songs
and a good reminder for me from 
time to time!

The Mr and I were just talking yesterday about how the song below helped us through some dark days (individually, before we got together)... sometimes it's good to just take a moment and "scream it out".... Reading It's Always Something, I got the impression Gilda wanted such moments from time to time during her treatments... 

 Sixx A.M. - Life Is Beautiful

I didn't know much about Radner before reading this book, outside of her SNL career, but found I something in common with her -- we both found our groove in high school performing in choir and drama and, here again, was another woman who also had fibrocystic breast disorder and ovarian cysts. She also mentioned having Epstein-Barr virus before developing ovarian cancer. Radner found support in The Wellness Community, where she met other cancer patients and their families, one patient being Tucker Smith, who played "Ice" in West Side Story. Radner admitted having a crush on him years ago, the film being one of her favorites. 

Tucker Smith as "Ice"
in West Side Story

Because my life was always stressful, a lot of people had told me that I should meditate. I thought meditation was some weird Indian yogi thing, and the only yogi I ever knew was somebody who could put a rope through his nose and make it come out his bum. I thought that was interesting but not something I wanted to do. I had heard about mantras and all that, but all I could think of was I would have to take my contacts lenses out to do that because I can't keep my eyes closed that long with them in; they start to hurt. It's hard enough to put them in in the morning without taking them out for forty-five minutes and then putting them back in. So, instead, I continued with my stressful life. ~~ Gilda Radner

Gilda's story of her battle with cancer is a powerful one, especially knowing how it turned out, but I really loved the love story of her and Gene Wilder. Her stories showed a side of him that rarely showed in films. It was cute to see how hard she had to work to convince him that marrying again was a good idea (he had divorce under his belt already and just seemed to want to date indefinitely); how she met him on her first movie role and couldn't concentrate on anything except "I wonder if he likes me?"; how she convinced him to let her co-star in Haunted Honeymoon -- written and directed by and starring Gene himself. I remember watching this film every summer -- you'd think it would be more of a Halloween film but nope, we did things a little backwards around our house back then lol. This is an adorable spoof movie btw.. worth checking out if you haven't seen it yet! Can you believe it only ran in theaters for 1 week??

The romance developing between them is such a sweet, funny story, which makes it brutally hard to read as she goes through the moments when she gets violently ill, then a little better, then ill again, all the while seeing the toll it takes on Gene. I was blown away how calm, patient, and loving he was with her even through her worst rages. His sense of humor gave her extra strength I'm sure. She tells the story of how he gave her a gift one year for her birthday with a tag attached that read:

This is not as loud as your mouth, but it's as delicate as your soul. Love, your husband. 

LOL sounds like something my husband would write in one of his jokey moods :-P The gift he gave her was a delicate looking necklace btw. 

Even though Radner's outcome is tragic, her insights on life, marriage, illness, etc throughout her treatment are beautifully honest and real. Definitely find yourself a copy, even if it's just a loaner from the library, and give this one a try :-)