Body Parts

The first time I try using the therapeutic dildo, it is so painful I think – “May the walls shrivel! Who cares?” I mention the pain to a female doctor friend. A few days later a present arrives. I love presents and tear open the package. It is a humble jar with a homemade label: “Vital Vulva Wild Yam Salve.” Can you imagine the ads on mainstream TV, equal to erectile dysfunction ones? “Is your Vulva depressed, dry, and unwelcoming? Does your vagina suffer from lack of use, loss of vitality, or has it recently been irradiated? Renew your vulva now! Restore it to the vital vaginal gateway that it once was with Vital Vulva Wild Yam Salve!! Best of all there are no life threatening side effects since Vital Vulva Wild Yam Salve is 100% NATURAL. So no worries! When you are ready for love, so will be your Vital Vagina!”

Vital Vulva Yam Salve

The whole idea of the radiation was to kill replicating vaginal cells just in case they were cancerous. My private parts are decidedly un-vital, uninviting. Even with lubrication, the therapy feels like torture and I finally quit. As parts of myself are shrinking, I have been watching tadpoles thriving in the kiddy pools I bought them. They are growing new appendages. One day they have little leg buds on either side of their tails, a few days later, substantial legs with feet. They adapt to this new mode of locomotion with fervor. Their flicking tails are the last to go.

Toad Babies

My metamorphosis into “spayed female” leaves me with a feeling of being hollowed out. Is it the loss of the protective omentum or the uterus, ovaries etc. that make me feel this way? I start to wonder which body parts are vital to keep moving forward through life.

A few years before the cancer diagnosis, I visited my mother at her Assisted Living Facility. She was eating lunch. Suddenly her eyes widened, she paused in her chewing, spit a tooth into the palm of her hand. I was overcome with dread, reminded of a recurring dream of losing all my teeth.

Losing Teeth
Dreams about tooth loss are said to signify loss of power, inability to express one’s needs, fear of death.

“Mom, we need to take you to the dentist.”
“Why?”
“Because your tooth just fell out.”
“So,” she says, stalwart as ever.

I ask her for the tooth and she hands it to me as though it were a discarded tissue. I clean it, put it in an envelope, and label it “Mom’s Tooth.” I do not want my mother to fall apart. Bit by bit, she does. She does not go to the dentist. She dies not long after losing the tooth. About eight months later I take my father to have a tooth pulled. When I go to pick him up, I expect to find him in a cozy carpeted waiting room. “Your father is still in there,” a young woman directs me to a large hollow green tiled room. The place seems barbaric. My father sits in the dentist’s chair as though left here alone to come out of the anesthesia. He has a bit of blood on his chin. A tray of extracting tools and bloodied gauze pads are next to him. I see his tooth on the floor and pick it up. He smiles at me as though all is well. I take the tooth home, clean it and sequester it in the envelope with my mother’s, just as their wedding rings nestle together in a velveteen box. My father dies two weeks later.

A friend of mine is interested in a new form of therapy. She offers to introduce it to me. She gently suggests that I should ask myself why I got cancer – what did it do for me, as though I had some say in the matter. She asks, “How would you characterize your relationship with your uterus?” Willing to try anything to put myself on a path of healing, I struggle for an answer. “Well, my periods were always painless, so I suppose I owe it some gratitude . . ” This seems superficial. I try to dig deeper, but come up with nothing, and now that the uterus is in Kaiser’s deep freeze, less than nothing. Did I get cancer because I neglected my uterus all these years??!!

Continuing Where We Left Off – Irradiated the First Time

Here is the last image that I posted – the first radiation treatment:
Radiation Room

July 14, 2009 The Second and Third Radiation Treatments
“Okay Ms. Ogus. You are done. Now our technician will come in to test the radiation levels in the room to make sure it is safe.” What? What about me? What about him? He is not wearing a lead suit. He just points his Geiger counter at this and that and says “Okay.” The nurses return to extricate me from the shoulder straps, tube, and stirrups. By now, Queen Vagina is so sore I don’t care that I yell out in pain when they remove the tube. Any sense of modesty or shame is long gone. I had consensual sex with radiation in front of a cavalry of nurses, doctors and technicians. Consensual or not, I feel raped, violated. When I get to my car, I double over in tears. A vagina is too tender for this kind of treatment. Though mine no longer leads anywhere, it must contain a million nerve pathways heading straight to the center of my being. Crowned, raw, and irradiated, at minimum she deserves a role in Eve Ensler’s Vagina Monologues. A Greek chorus would be more like it: Rows of real females, not the usual masked males, join hands, raise their arms up high, shout their outrage to the heavens. They wail, evoking the pain of every woman ever raped. A hundred voices singing every violation of this tenderest of female parts; dissonant howls that merge and finally ring in harmony.

(Today is January 4, 2013. A major current news item is the rape and subsequent death of a young woman in India. She was gang-raped on a bus. The men shoved a metal pipe in her vagina. This caused so much internal damage that she could not be saved. I too was raped as a young woman – by a single stranger. Both my rape and this radiation treatment are trivial compared to what happened to this Indian woman. A Greek chorus should wail for her.)

During the week after the first treatment I gird my loins (sorry I couldn’t resist) take on a get tough attitude and ask myself, “How can I turn this into something positive?” I decide to take my cancer cookbook, One bite at a Time, by Rebecca Katz to the waiting room to share with the other patients. Instead of the noisy flock, there are only three women in the waiting room, a frail elderly white woman, a forty-ish robust-looking woman whose shins are marked with black x’s, and a middle-aged Asian woman, maybe Filipino. I introduce myself and the cookbook, rave about Rebecca’s skill at turning kabocha squash into a gourmet meal. The Filipino woman takes a look. The elderly woman smiles, the woman with the black X’s says, “All I eat is sweets. I hate vegetables.” I want to cry out – “But sugar feeds cancer. It’s bad for you!” Just in the nick of time, I realize my desire to share is proselytizing, not what these women need right now, nor can I cure anybody else’s cancer.

The second treatment is a repeat of the first. The gold seeds must have been flushed down the toilet during the previous week. Usually they stay put. “I’m sorry Ms. Ogus. You are just unlucky. This rarely happens. I am so sorry.” This time the doctor shoots them in with more thrust. By now everyone is used to my yelping. I ask him to x-ray me before he sticks in the radiation tube instead of after – so we can avoid excessive strafing of my poor vaginal walls. Again, they leave me alone while the radiations is administered. Birthday or not, when it is all over I have no appetite for mint chocolate chip ice-cream.

The following week, they X-ray me again before inserting the Tube. Three is the charm. The gold seeds stay in. When the eleven minutes are up, the nurse tells me to dress and meet for a consultation in her office. She seats me next to her desk on which there is a brown paper bag. “I have some presents for you,” she says cheerfully. “Here is your diploma for completing the treatment.” It is a rolled up certificate secured with a pink ribbon. “And this.” “This” is a white, hard plastic, smooth walled dildo whose diameter looks daunting. “You need to used this for 15 minutes everyday for the next eight months to keep your vagina from closing up. The radiation can make the vaginal walls shrink.” I want to ask if she has a smaller one, but that seems so . . . unmacho.

Presents After Radiation

The first time I try this, it is so painful I think – let them shrivel! Who cares? I talk to a doctor friend, and she recommends a natural lubricant to ease the process – in fact she sends it to me as a present.

Return to the Cancer Frog Blog

Dear Cancer Frog Blog Readers,
It has been two years since my last post. Why did I stop? There are a few reasons. One, I started to dread thinking about cancer all the time. I wanted to think about the rest of life. Instead I had drawn a really ugly scary cartoon about hope and death and thought “Who wants to look at that?”

Death Dreams

Two, I got lazy – I had framed all the cartoons and had a show of them at a local gallery. Many of my friends generously came to the opening and bought the framed pieces (which I was not expecting – I sort of forgot that the art was for sale and that the gallery wanted to make some money). After all this excitement and a return to work and recreating, I didn’t feel like staying up till 1 in the morning to work on the blog. I became a couch potato. The last reason is the most embarrassing to of all. I got scared. Here is why – this was written at the time it happened:
January 2011
I continue to write down the names of famous people who die of cancer, Jill Clayburgh, American actress, of Leukemia, Maurice Lucas, basketball star, of bladder cancer, Pete Postlethwaite, British actor, unnamed cancer. This gets tiresome, seems elitist, not to mention wearing. So many people are dying of cancer everyday.

Chronicle Books has a fundraiser for Habitat for Humanity. Make a donation and you can present your book idea to an appropriate editor. I print out some of the frog blog illustrations and three entries of text. It is a rainy day in San Francisco. I wear an ultramarine long raincoat whose fabric flows artistically. Chronicle’s small retail store serves as the waiting room and many eager writers mill around, reading titles, leafing through books. I imagine the Cancer Frog Blog imprinted and bound professionally between two hard covers with amphibian textured end pages. What an honor, what a coup, what a perfect ending to this ordeal! I look at my notes for my Pitch. I feel a hot flash coming on but don’t want to take off the attractive raincoat, as though the bright blue will help me get published.

Just before my turn to approach an editor in the Living and Style section, another candidate approaches me and we exchange book ideas.
“Oh, I had a friend who had cancer. She just died, four years after her diagnosis.”
“What kind of cancer did she have?”
“Same as you,” she says. My blood pounds in my temples and I am suddenly so hot, there is no question of leaving on the raincoat. I take it off, juggle it with my cheat sheets and blog excerpts. My name is called. I approach a small table and sit in front of a young woman with cropped dark hair, hip casual clothes. She is half my age. The raincoat slithers out of my grasp and puddles to the floor. My faces flushes. Instead of cool blue I present her with freaked out red.

Chronicle Books

I hand her the proposal with 3 pages of text and 15 printed illustrations from the blog. I stammer something about a memoir about cancer using a frog as the protagonist. She looks through the art. She does not read a single word. “I don’t see how people could relate to a frog,” she says, “and the quality of the art . . . Furthermore you have no platform.” Later a friend of mine who is a published author tells me that editors these days are all looking for an author’s “PLATFORM,” like a diving board from which the work can soar with a fancy sequence of commercial gymnastics. “Have you seen Marisa Marchetto’s book, Cancer Vixen?” My face flushes again. I hear: “You are a nobody. Your art sucks. Marisa is a famous New Yorker cartoonist. Her book is being made into a movie starring Cate Blanchette. Even Kermit wouldn’t want to star in a film about you.” To this young, ambitious and determined editor, I am just a statistic who will soon die of cancer.
“Who is reading your blog?” she asks.
“Friends, other people who come upon it or are referred to it. Everyone seems to like it.”
“Well just keep writing it for your friends. Thanks for coming by.”
I try to smile graciously but feel my eyes shrinking into dark little beads of humiliation. I grab my notebook and the raincoat, which keeps snaking off my arm. I am so hot I don’t try to wrestle it on as I hurry past the tidy shelves of smug published books into the drizzle. A car honks at me as I dodge blindly across the bustling San Francisco traffic.

End of the post. So the young editor’s opinion was enough to scare me into inactivity. Because of the disappearance of the blog, people have even wondered whether I have died. Well I have not – yet. And the Cancer Frog Blog is back!!!

Radioactive Birthday – Caution, “R”-Rated Post

Replete with maitaki mushrooms and blue-green algae, I go to the pre-radiation appointment at Kaiser’s Cancer Treatment center, a building separate from the main hospital. A nurse tells me how the treatments will proceed. “You will have three treatments, each a week apart, each lasting 10-15 minutes. You will be alone  in a specially insulated room during the radiation. The process you will have is called ‘Brachytherapy.’ Here is a pamphlet that describes it. Basically they insert a tube into your vagina and deliver the radiation though there. Do you have any questions?” I am too busy contemplating the bombardment of my vagina to speak. The doctor comes in to meet me and to explain things in more detail. “Brachytherapy will reduce the likelihood of the cancer coming back in your vagina from 15% to 1.5%. Brachytherapy is the application of radiation into the body through a device, which can be a wire or seeds, so that the radiation is proximal to the tumor. In your case a wire is fed through the tube we insert in your vagina and this carries the radioactive charge to your tissue. We also embed little stainless steel or gold seeds into the crown of your vagina to help us gauge how far in we insert the wire. Computer software controls how much radiation is emitted through the wire and how far it penetrates.” “What exactly will the radiation accomplish?” “It will prevent the exposed cells from replicating. If any of them are cancerous, theoretically, the cancer won’t spread. Irradiated cells will not divide – neither will any healthy cells that happen to be in the radiation’s path.” “And for all we know all the cells are healthy?” “Yes, that could be the case.”

Instead of imagining a mushroom cloud ballooning out of my vagina, I can now imagine this:

Brachytherapy

I look up Brachytherapy on line. “Brachys” means “short distance” in Greek. The advantage of it is that it exposes less healthy tissue to radiation than other available methods. In my case no one knows whether there is cancerous tissue in my vagina – the cancer was in the endometrial wall and this was removed surgically. So my choice is part guess work, part faith, part risk: Do I expose healthy tissue to radiation and possible cause cancer to prevent a possibly remaining cancer from metastizing?

The procedure does not sound at all fail-safe. By the time I write this entry – a year after my treatments, there have been at least two articles in the San Jose Mercury News about deadly radiation overdoses. The first in January of 2010 features Scott Jerome-Parks. He was being treated for tongue cancer at a New York hospital. A software error caused a linear accelerator to blast his brain stem and neck with errant beams of radiation. This happened on three consecutive days. Scott became deaf, blind, unable to swallow and lost his teeth. He developed ulcers in his mouth and was finally unable to breath. His dying wish was that these accidents be studied and eradicated. Soon after this incident a breast cancer patient also suffered overdoses of radiation that burned a hole in her chest and were ultimately fatal. In August of 2010 there was an article about CT scans exposing patients to overly high doses of radiation, causing them to lose their hair, and to face long-term risks of cancer and brain damage. I have already had CT scans of my brain and abdomen, leg and lung x-rays, countless routine mammograms and oral x-rays. Enough is enough. I ask if  I can have a second opinion. What is the point of irradiating healthy tissue? “Of course you can have a second opinion, “ says the doctor. “Let me see what I can do.” He steps out the door. Moments later he returns with an older man. “This is Dr. _. He is my mentor.” The more senior doctor has some sort of speech impediment. Slowly, with great deliberation, he recounts the studies and convinces me that statistics prove that the treatment is worth the risk. My father was a statistician. He had a small black book on the shelf with large gold letters: How to Lie with Statistics. The older doc’s opinion is simply an affirmation of the first doc’s. He seems kind, conscientious, honest. I need to make up my mind. I feel the right brain yielding to the weightiness of Western protocols – of making decisions based on documented empirical study. Intuition combined with panic and remnants of childhood fears of anything nuclear, rail against the rational. The left brain wins. My treatments are scheduled for July 7, 14, 21, 2009. My birthday is July 12. I promise myself a mint chocolate chip ice cream cone when it is all over.

At the first appointment, the nurse leads me back to the dressing rooms. “Choose any of the free lockers to put your clothes in,” she says. “Can I use the bathroom first?” My nerves have gotten the best of my bladder. “Yes it’s right through here.” She leads me through a waiting room filled with the cheerful clucking of other patients.
“Oh what is she here for?!”
“What kind of cancer do you have?”
“How many treatments are you having?”
“We’ve never seen you here before.”
“ A frog???”
“Don’t mind these girls,” says the nurse. “They’re regulars.

The Waiting Room

I emerge from the dressing room donned in the shear cotton hospital gown (Shouldn’t I be wearing a body suit of lead?) and the nurse leads me into the radiation room. It is filled with computers, x-ray and radiation machines, a variety of monitors, all connected by a tangle of wires. Each piece of equipment looks like another potential for error. The radiation machine is locked to a steel u-bolt in the floor by long cables. The table where I am told to lie down is fitted with stirrups and these have knee to ankle leg wraps that the nurse velcros closed around my calves. “Is this in case I try to escape?” “This is for women who have to stay here for multiple days, so they don’t fall out when they fall asleep.” Humbled, I remember my friend’s experience with cervical cancer. She was strapped into a contraption like this for three days to shrink her tumor. She is alive and well today. My ordeal will only be 11 minutes long.

The doctor decides to experiment with stainless steel seeds instead of the usual gold ones. Using a speculum, and some kind of long-barreled device, he shoots these into the crown of my vaginal cuff (this is what it is called now that there is no cervix, no pathway to a uterus). Bang bang bang! Ow! Ow! Ow! Then he inserts the tube that will hold the radioactive wire. The nurse secures this tube with a harness and straps that fit over my shoulders and shove the base of the tube against my pelvic floor. Everything hurts. The nurses and doctor chime in, “Just relax, just relax.” But my vaginal walls feel raw and inflamed, like they are being strafed with a cheese shredder every time something goes in or out. Once everything is in place, the nurse X-rays me to make sure the wire and seeds have the right relationship. She and the doctor mumble to each other. “I’m sorry Ms. Ogus,” says the doctor, “the stainless seeds are not showing up.” “Where could they go?” I ask. “Right through the vaginal cuff? Are they floating around somewhere in my abdominal cavity?” “No, no,” reassures the doctor, giving me no explanation. “We’ll try the gold seeds this time.” The team regroups, each performs his or her duty: off come the straps, out comes the tube, in goes the speculum again. Bang bang bang! “Ow Ow Ow!” again. Out comes the speculum, in goes the tube. The nurse shoves the tube, pulls the harness tight, re-X-rays. The vaginal cuff is crowned with shimmering seeds.

The Queen

They are about to irradiate me. Doom, dread, Oppenheimer, Hiroshima, Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, sloughing flesh. Marie, Pierre and their daughter Irene Curie died prematurely so I could lie here on this table, trying to prolong my life.
“Okay, now we leave you alone in here. This is the computer that controls the radiation. Somebody will be out here the whole time. If you need anything you can call us. Don’t worry.” I try to settle in, look up to a ceiling of illuminated glass panels imprinted with treetops and blue sky.

Irradiated

Genies, Genes & Stress

The last blog entry ended with Dr. Marie Mulligan saying the following, “You are not really the type I associate with this kind of cancer – it tends to appear in women with a lot of stress.”

She does not know that during the several years preceding my diagnosis, my brothers and I had been taking care of my parents whose health and well being were rapidly declining.

It all started when my father called. “Your mother is leaving me.”
“Dad, what are you talking about – after all these years?”
“No, no that’s not what I mean. I dropped her at the doctor’s office the other day and she went to the wrong clinic. She doesn’t know where she is.” I hop on a plane immediately and when I get to my parents’ house, no one answers when I ring the bell. I go in and discover my father trying to pull my mother out of bed. She has projectile vomiting. The bedroom reeks of urine. I start to call an ambulance. “No, we don’t need one,” says my father and I realize the depth of his denial. At the hospital, they discover Mom has gone septic from a urinary tract infection (UTI). She recovers but begins a steady cognitive decline. After much discussion, my father agrees to sell the house and move into assisted living to be near us. I make repeated trips back and forth across the country, organize 3 estate sales and watch my mother shrug her shoulders as people leave with her treasured collections of copper pots, blown glass, African masks, and beads.

One day, back at home, I notice that I have a rash covering my entire body. The doctor says “I don’t know what it is, we can take a biopsy.” The biopsy comes back negative. “It’s some kind of auto-immune problem. “Could it be caused by stress? I ask. “No,” he says, “definitely not.” My friend Dr. Beverley Kane, says “The skin is the first line of defense.” She suggests that I contact another forward thinking scientist who recommends reading, The Genie in Your Genes.

It is about epigenetics – the idea that there are environmental forces acting upon genes that cause them to mutate, to manifest or not manifest. “Environment” can mean the emotional state of the person, which in turn causes chemical changes in the body, which in turn effect genetic behavior and disease. The book sites studies with couples upon whom small wounds are inflicted – scratches. One set of couples is exposed to stress, another not. The wounds of the stressed couple heal more slowly than the wounds of the unstressed couple. So can one extrapolate from this that if a cell’s genes have a mutant cancer sequence, this can be suppressed until some change in the cell’s chemical contents enable the cancer to manifest? My rash remains for over a year. It disappears after we get my parents settled into assisted living.

My brothers and I still have plenty of stress, trying to manage my parents’ care. My mother calls her living space “this lousy apartment.” One day she asks, “Why don’t you have a baby for me to play with?” She forgets that I am well past menopause. There are so many ways in which I have failed her expectations.

Her health is fragile. She gets one UTI after another. We ask the doctor how we can prevent these infections from recurring. He stands at the foot of her bed and says, “She has to die of something.” The first neurologist she sees suggests looking into new medications for Alzheimer’s. “What are some?” I ask. “Look it up on the internet,” he says.

At the assisted living facility, a compassionate but disorganized health care manager engages in ongoing conflicts with the owners. We look for an alternatives, but my father has dug in. He doesn’t want to move, doesn’t think anywhere else will be an improvement. Two years into my parents’ stay, he has a stroke. As a result, he cannot swallow properly, his speech is slurred, but he remains mentally acute. Within a short time he can walk and speak more clearly. His swallowing never improves and there is a danger that he will inhale food into his lungs and die of pneumonia. He has a stomach tube inserted for nourishment. He hates the stomach tube, hates having an aid administer the feeding. The more he loses control over personal tasks, the grumpier he gets. He practices his own private form of Judaism. I give him Jeanne and William Steig’s book, “The Old Testament Made Easy,” thinking it will make him laugh. Instead he complains, “There’s a mistake. Steig drew Adam with a belly button.”

We visit another neurologist to get to the bottom of my mother’s cognitive wasting. “She is losing tissue,” he says, and points to dark smudges on her brain scan. She slips further and further away, stops talking, withdraws from my father. One day I bring her Chinese food for lunch. She eats it, falls asleep, awakens for dinner. She sits with other barely cognitive patients. Suddenly her head drops to the side.

We rush her to the hospital. A nurse slaps her hand and calls her, “Shirley, Shirley!” She opens her round blue eyes and smiles, lifts her hand to the nurses cheek and strokes it. I want it to be my cheek, I want to be touched by her, seen by her one last time. I am on the wrong side of the bed; I wouldn’t have the nerve to disturb her sleep. The nurse smiles back. Mom’s hand drops down. She closes her eyes.

The doctor says “We’ll keep her on fluids for three days. Sometimes people come back. If not, you can withdraw fluids and she will die within two weeks.” She never comes back. We decide to let our mother die of thirst and hunger. We call hospice and sit vigil. We give her oxygen to ease her breathing; we change her fentanol patches. If she seems restless, we put morphine under her tongue. We swab her gums with a soft lollipop-like green sponge on a stick, to moisten her mouth. How do you know whether you are adequately controlling the pain of someone who has fallen through the black holes in her brain? The hospice nurse tells us the signs to watch for. “Her feet will turn blue, her breathing will become sparse and rough, she will exhale and die.” On the ninth day we surround her: my father, my two brothers, the hospice nurse, and I. I count her breaths per minute. Her toes are blue, her breath a harsh cackle. We tell her how much we love her and reassure her that it is okay to let go. She inhales and dies.

My father falls into despair. He decides to have his stomach tube, the one good source of nourishment removed. He becomes emaciated and weak. One day I come into his room and he is folded chest to knees in his wheel chair, clutching tax papers in his left hand. He looks dead. I put my hand on his back, “Dad, Dad?” He sits up. “Dad, are you okay? I wish you would let someone else do your taxes.” He is a numbers man, a statistician. He is stubborn about doing his own taxes. “No, I’m not okay. The taxes aren’t the problem,” he says. “It’s my body. I’m dying.” The next day my brother takes him to the doctor, who encourages him to eat more. He dies in his bathroom that afternoon, alone, after my brother leaves. By the time I get there, my brothers have laid him out on his narrow bed.

He lies, arms and legs akimbo, his position evocative.

No Holy Mother holds him aloft. A fierce believer in the unity of G-d, my father would have been horrified that the Pieta even crossed my mind. He was also fiercely pragmatic, “Once you are dead, you are dead, kaput, finished, nothing.”

Jews do not believe in preserving corpses with embalming fluids or elaborate coffins. They return to earth in a plain wooden box. My parents went even further.  They donated their bodies to science. Each was wheeled into a non-descript van, driven to a morgue, then transported to a medical school. I have no idea what happened to them there, what happened to them when the students were finished with them.  “There isn’t a grave, an urn of ashes,” says my brother, “just nothing .”

A month later we discover that someone walked by my dead father, into his room, stole his credit card and used it to buy gas and dog food.

I have to wonder whether my stress caused the skin rash, whether it allowed my body’s chemicals to get so out of balance that it triggered the cancer. Who can know to what degree we influence our own health. My surgeon believes I can have no influence on whether or not the cancer returns. He says this as though it should be a relief to me. I settle on something in between – try not to worry about the cancer returning and buy all the vegetables, cook books and algae that Dr. Mulligan recommends – and especially the Maitaki mushrooms to prepare for the radiation.

Alternative Treatments

Between the surgery and radiation I do not dwell on the surgeon’s words. “Your cancer could come back anytime, anywhere, in any organ . . . don’t worry about it. There is nothing you can do about it.” I do not agree and seek other opinions and directives. I send the pathology report which says I have stage 2 cancer, no papillary serous to two alternative medicine doctors – both also trained in western medicine, Dr. Marie Mulligan and Dr. Beverley Kane. I also go to Dr. Chen, my Chinese acupuncturist as soon as I feel well enough to leave the house. He holds my wrist, he looks at my tongue. “We need to increase your chi, balance your body” he says. “Don’t worry. You will live into your 80’s.”

Acupuncture

Marie (Dr. Mulligan) graciously consults with me on the phone. She makes many recommendations; her knowledge is encyclopedic. I can barely write fast enough to get it all down.

See your acupuncturist regularly – for the rest of your life. He will feel dedicated to healing you. The Chinese doctors I know feel responsible when their patients get cancer. There are mushrooms that are good for cancer and particularly for radiation – Maitake and Reishi, also called Lingzhi. Start taking blue green algae, Chlorella in particular. It rids your body of heavy metals, cleans and supports your blood. Keep your body more alkali by drinking lemon juice in water – a pint/day. Eat millet and plenty of vegetables – sweet potatoes, squashes, garlic, onion, leeks, cilantro, cabbage, broccoli. Good fruits are blueberries and raspberries. Drink Green Tea. By the way, the diet doesn’t have to be boring. There is a wonderful cook book, One Bite at a Time, Nourishing Recipes for Cancer Survivors and Their Friends, by Rebecca Katz, with really delicious vegetarian fare. You can look into the Coenzyme Q-10.

I look into the Mayo Clinic’s report on Q-10 – there are currently no conclusive studies about it’s use for cancer, but there is interesting information about it:

Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10) is produced by the human body and is necessary for the basic functioning of cells. CoQ10 levels are reported to decrease with age and to be low in patients with some chronic diseases such as heart conditions, muscular dystrophies, Parkinson’s disease, cancer, diabetes, and HIV/AIDS. Some prescription drugs may also lower CoQ10 levels.

Levels of CoQ10 in the body can be increased by taking CoQ10 supplements, although it is not clear that replacing “low CoQ10” is beneficial.

CoQ10 has been used, recommended, or studied for numerous conditions, but remains controversial as a treatment in many areas.: http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/coenzyme-q10/NS_patient-coenzymeq10/DSECTION=evidence.


I think Dr. Marie must be finished with her advice, not realizing the extent of her abundant resources. She continues with recommendations for a two week annual cleansing diet of lemon juice and water and steamed vegetables. “You can even try a juice fast for week – just water with lemon juice or a pinch of baking soda. Get a lot of exercise, reduce your consumption of dairy and above all DON’T WORRY. WORRY=ADHESIONS. You are not really the type I associate with this kind of cancer – it tends to appear in women with a lot of stress.”
Hmmmmmm.

Meanwhile, morphogenesis:

From humble beginnings:

While Working on the Next Cancer Entry . . .

While I am writing the rest of the cancer story, the tadpoles are growing. Some have two legs, a very few have four, most are still small tadpoles, heads and tails. There seems to be no rhyme or reason to their development. In the same batch there are large tadpoles with no legs and small tadpoles with legs budding. Here is one with two legs.  Notice that its body is toad like.

Two legged Tadpole

Here is one with four legs and with it a surprise.

Tadpole with four legs

Instead of looking up to the heavens, I look down, to life, small and intricate. Instead of feeling dizzy, I feel elated. Either way, this is what makes us human, this ability to wonder.
Four legged Again

A Diversion to the Present: 1. Cancer in Popular Media 2. Amphibian Morphogenesis


I am at the airport on my way to the Las Vegas Gift Show for work. Though pre loaded with things to read, I survey the new stand for something better, Science Magazine. I flip though the pages. A smear of green sugar icing topped with little purple grapes pops off a two page spread.  It has a strange sci-fi beauty. The caption reads “Invasion of the Bleb.”

Lung Cancer Cell by Anne Weston

It is an electron microscopy image taken by master photographer, Anne Weston, EM Unit, Cancer Research UK. This little landscape is a lung cancer cell. Anne has dyed the cell to better differentiate the little balls or as they are officially called, “blebs” from the cell surface.  The blebs are bubbles that form when a cell divides or undergoes stress. I guess one could classify uncontrolled cell division as stress. Scientists use images like this one to examine cancer’s disruption of normal cell function. pg 8 Science, March/April 2010.

I try to contact Anne Weston when I get home to see if I can use the image here in the blog. The first Anne Weston I see on Facebook has the American Cancer Society listed as a favorite organization. I think that I have found the photographer and send her an email. Instead, I have coincidentally come across the art director for the American Cancer Society publication, Triumph! By researching more electron microscopy sites, I find the photographer, Anne Weston and she kindly agrees to let me publish her image. If you would like to see more fantastic images of hers and other scientists cum artists, please visit Visuals Unlimited at http://www.visualsunlimited.com/c/visualsunlimited and the Wellcome Image Library at http://medphoto.wellcome.ac.uk/

Once in Vegas, I meet up with Prima Entrepreneur Margaret Majua, for whom I do design work. We are looking for ideas and products for her stores.  The gift show sprawls in typical Vegas extravagance across three conventions centers. Glittery bling, hippo netsuke, walky talky dinosaurs, military fashion wear, Prada purses, kitsch of all kinds adorn the aisles. We buy the remote controlled dinosaurs because anything that moves, sells. We also look for sayings magnets and I see this one:

Stupidity Causes Cancer

I keep staring at it, trying to figure out the point of view of its creator, and finally decide that it is one of those numbing conundrums, like “This sentence is false.”

We walk up and down the aisles until my eyes and feet ache equally. Suddenly I am stunned:

My African Cousins

The Booth is called Wild Creations. 4” x 4” x 6” aquariums line the shelves. In each are two of my cousins, African Dwarf Frogs, about 1.5” long, hind legs kicking furiously, front feet scraping the sides of their plexiglass prison. A young man hands out fliers touting these so called “EcoAquariums™ as having been nominated “Toy of the Year” by the Toy Industry Association, Inc..  The brochure quotes Julie J. Charlotte, NC, “The best product I’ve ever used in my classroom to teach kids about ecosystems.” Ecosystem??? The choices for the aquarium are either 4” x 4” x 4” or 4” x 4” x 6” with decorative gravel or rock, living bamboo, and Living Gravel™.  The brochure goes on, “There is nothing like our EcoAquarium™. Change the water twice a year . . . feed the frogs twice a week. All of the living elements inside the EcoAquarium contribute to the needs of each other.  The frogs and snail in the aquarium consume oxygen and produce carbon dioxide.  Naturally occurring bacteria in the Living Gravel convert ammonia from animal waste and left over food into nitrates.  These by-products provide food and nutrients for the living plants and algae, which in turn produce oxygen through photosynthesis.  Through this cycle a balanced ecosystem is created.”

Here is what I found out about African Dwarf Frogs:

“These semi-scavengers should be fed every alternate day . . . The African dwarf frogs need to be kept in a large tank of 10-gallon or more .  .  .  the African dwarf frog is a rather timid and shy amphibian . . . it is  essential to provide these amphibian lots of hiding places.” http://www.aquaticcommunity.com/frogs-turtles/africandwarffrog.php

These frogs are together in about 3 cups of water. they have no place to hide and they look miserable.

Close up of African Dwarf Frogs

“These are inhumane and I do not approve of them,” I say to the salesman, as though I am Oprah and my opinion will determine his success or failure. “Okay’” he says, and smiles knowing he has “one of the highest grossing products per sq. ft. in stores today” (also in their brochure).

We have an extra day in Las Vegas and tour the Valley of Fire, a flaming sandstone expanse that bursts up out of the Nevada desert.

Valley of Fire

Thanks to the movement of tectonic plates, the grey limestone mountains surrounding the valley will eventually bury it. There are Anasazi petroglyphs scratched onto some of the wall faces. This one shows my species:

Petroglyhs

In addition to petroglyphs, the guide points out creosote bush.

Creosote Bush

“Cup your hands over some leaves, smell them, then exhale and smell again.” We do this. At first the leaves have no odor, but after we exhale, they open their cells to suck in the moisture from our breath, and emit a subtly pungent odor. A little miracle. “The creosote bush has nothing to do with creosote, except for its odor but does have medicinal uses and is being studied for uses in cancer treatment.” This sounds like something I should verify and discover that researchers have performed experiments with an acid extracted from the creosote bush “that corroborate(s) its chemopreventive potential against skin cancer.”
1Department of Medical Elementology and Toxicology, Hamdard University, New Delhi 110062, India, 2Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences, Medical University of South Carolina, Charleston, SC 29425, USA and 3Department of Neurophysiology, Leibniz Institute for Neurobiology, Brenneckestrasse 6, Magdeburg D-39118, Germany

I also read this: “The creosote plant was a virtual pharmacy for Native Americans and the steam from the leaves was inhaled to relieve congestion. It was also used in the form of a medicinal tea to cure such ailments as flu, stomach cramps, cancer, coughs, colds, and others.” Phil Persson, a resident of Phoenix http://phoenix.about.com/cs/desert/a/creosote.htm

There are surprises for me when I return to California. It has rained every day while I have been gone. When I go out, I notice some long black dotted strands of slime in the rain puddles. At first I think they are some awful horse worm.

Worms?

Remember my distant cousin, the Western Toad?

 Western Toad

It turns out these are her eggs (or her sister’s):

Toad Eggs

There are more in a second puddle, and in a third, hatched tadpoles. I start tracking the progression.

Hatchlings on their egg tube:

Hatchlings on the Egg Tube

Close up of hatchlings looking embryonic:

Embryonic Hatchlings

Within 2-3 days, they are swimmers with fins. BTW, that other little green thing in the human hand is also a creature!

2-3 days old with fins!

Small guys compared to the older tadpoles I find in the second puddle. Note that the fins are gone:

2 day old hatchlings & tadpole, compare

Tadpole Pin-up

Arty Tadpole

I read on a creature info site (http://www.fishpondinfo.com, developed by Robyn Rhudy) that zero to ten out of all the hundreds of eggs a toad lays will mature to adult hood – Zero because the toad may have chosen an inopportune place to lay – very likely in California where rain is sparse and puddles have an unpredictable duration. There are three puddles on my property. All start to dry up before a single tadpole matures. The shallowest dries up a few days after the rain. I rescue some of its hatchlings, scoop them into a plastic container with mud, algae and rocks, but leave most to die. I rescue every single one of the larger tadpoles in the second puddle – put them in a kiddie swimming pool. Out of the third puddle, I place the unhatched egg strands in a separate container so I can track them from tadpole to toadom. The third puddle is the largest. I rescue many of the swimmers, even buy a second kiddie pool; but most die in the drying mud.

I notice that the tadpoles from a single puddle and presumably the same egg strand develop at different rates – possibly as much as this:

Different Growth Rates

These are not from my control group so I cannot be sure they came from the same strand. I will survey my control group and compare them as they grow.

I am not good at survival of the fittest. The fact that I have made it into my late 50’s is by the grace of niche markets, compassionate friends and family, and some lucky stumbling. The TV Show “The Weakest Link” seemed mean-spirited to me. I hate Donald Trump’s “The Apprentice.” It is as Darwinian as the baboon downing the baby Gazelle, the upstart cabochin monkey killing its pack leader. The fact that my cancer was not papillary serous, that I came out of the surgery and returned to relative robustness, that I earn a living and can draw using computer tools – all of this seems to be the result of luck, not willfulness. When I tell a friend, a doctor whom I haven’t seen for 20 years, that I survived cancer, he says, “Nu, so you’ll die of something else!”

My need to save all the tadpoles is a fool’s errand – by averting one calamity I am postponing or causing another. I scoop up one bunch of tadpoles and not another. Death is delayed longer for the scooped up bunch. Eventually they will succumb to cannibalism, predatory attack, lack of food or water, will get run over by a truck, or die of old age (unlikely). My surgeon, the oncology team at Kaiser, scooped me up.

I find an ant who has met some accident. It is curled into a ball and cannot unfurl its body, though it waves its legs with great intention. The humane thing to do is smash it, put it out of its misery. But I wait in cowardice long enough for a puff of wind to carry it away, leave it to its painful fate.

Cancer  quotidienne is my new nomenclature for serendipitous mentions of cancer in the media.  In a March 2010 issue of the New Yorker: Joseph Papp (Joseph Papirofsky), died of prostate cancer October 31, 1991. What he did during his lifetime – turned the old Astor Library into one of the most prestigious theater venues in New York – The Public Theater, “responsible for among others, the original productions of “Hair,” “A Chorus Line,” “The Normal Heart,” and “That Championship Season.”

The next FrogBlog entry will be back on track with the cancer story continued. Sometimes I cannot help myself by yielding to distraction – and my fascination with worlds under the radar.

Tadpole close-up; nostrils, eyes, pupils and sparkly irises:

Eyes, Nostril, Pupils

Introduction to Henrietta Lax and Hela Cells

February 2010: On the radio show, Fresh Air, Terri Gross interviews science journalist, Rebecca Skloot, author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. In April, 1951, Henrietta Lacks discovered she had a particularly virulent kind of cervical cancer. The doctor who biopsied her tumor cultured the cells, which were dubbed “Hela,” He for henrietta, La for Lacks. Henrietta’s were the first human cells robust enough to survive outside the human body, to be fruitful and multiply in test tubes and petrie dishes long after her death. Her family had no idea Henrietta’s cells were being used in this fashion and did not find out until the 1970’s that medical companies were merchandising Hela cells for profit. There are currently over 50 metric tons of Henrietta’s cancer cells still thriving and dividing. Skloot describes a Hela cell undergoing mitosis, which in normal cells means dividing into two:

“. . . one cancer cell, its edges round and smooth . . . began to quiver and shake violently, exploding into five cancer cells.” The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (pg 57)

*These cells are not to scale. 5000 human cells can fit on the head of a pin.

These are some of the things that Henrietta’s cells have achieved and been subjected to:

  • Sent by Russians on the second satellite ever put into orbit, 1960
  • Accompanied the first humans sent into outer space; scientists thus discovered that living in zero gravity accelerated Hela cell division, rendering the cells even more virulent
  • packed in ice in various stages of mitosis and sent all over the world for research

  • Used to develop the Salk polio vaccine
  • Exposed to massive doses of radiation to see how the atomic bomb would affect humans
  • Spun in centrifuges till the G-force was 100,000
  • Used to test new products and drugs including steroids, chemotherapy, hormones, vitamins
  • Used to study TB, salmonella, the bacterium that causes vaginitis, hemorrhagic fever, and of course, cancer

By the 1990’s one scientist believed that Hela cells had mutated enough to be considered another species. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a wonderful read and fascinating book about medical ethics.

Thank You

I would like to express my profound gratitude to friends and family who came forth with so much love and generosity before, during, and after my hospital stay. A huge thank you to everyone who came to visit me at the hospital. Special thanks to my guardian angels: Beverley who drove me home, straightening out the curves and smoothing out the bumps in the road to minimize pain; Andra and Jennifer, who lived with me for two weeks, waiting on me hand and foot; and to everyone who, in the midst of the cancer chaos, helped Becky and me move to a new home.

Stay tuned for the continuing frog blog. Still to come: Alternative medicine, radiation treatment, living day to day after cancer treatment.