Sunday, July 31, 2016

A New Lens

Cancer is hard.  It changes the way you think about things, and it also gives you a new way to look at the world.  

In a short 6 weeks since being diagnosed it has I have learnt that: 

1. Life is truly short.  We need to make sure that we are doing what we want to do, being who we are and that we are surrounded by those we love.

2. Bullshit is not acceptable. At all. Ever. Deal with it. 

3. People are weird, and some people vanish because they don't know what to do or say and the feelings that come up are way too scary.  I wish that I too could vanish from this all, but I have no choice.  When I have talked to people candidly and openly about my diagnosis they seem so relieved.  And generous.  It's important to take the time with people, because if you can get past the fear, and connect, well, that's the best. 

4. You want to do exactly what is important to you. I want to go back to Spain to where my father came from so I can show my son.  I want to continue collecting stories. I want to grow the theatre and dance audiences in my city.  I want to make art that matters. I want to work on a project that gives cancer patients and their families an opportunity to be creative in a meaningful way while in hospital wards, doctors offices, and waiting rooms.  Getting my hands moving  has helped me so much when my father was diagnosed, and now that i am a cancer patient. These are just seeds and will most probably remain that way until after my treatments, but it's important to identify what means the most to you.  

On Thursday night, I went to one of my all time favourite dance events, Dusk Dances.  For many years it has been in Toronto and 3 years ago they brought this event to Hamilton at lovely Bayfront Park.  It's a night unlike any other.  Audience gathers to a band playing, and then a host appears (this year its' the lovely Nina Gilmour as Madame Pink Lady.)  She lets us know that we will be walking around the park to see four dance pieces.  Disclaimer: I have been a host before in 2009 in Vancouver as the fiesty Ms Lula and know many of the performers involved.  The pieces performed were stunning, so human, and so full of love.  The last piece in particular, Incandescent was excellent.  It was choreographed by Meredith Thompson and Kate Franklin and it featured over 20 community members in a modern piece that took my breathe a way.  The night I went, it was a bit cloudy and far in the distance as the dancers appeared on the horizon, we were treated to a few bolts of lightning that illuminated the sky and the dancers beautifully.  To me, the piece was about life and death, about connection with others, and love.  

As i watched it I was moved to tears.  I watched some people that I have strong connections with dance beautifully as I sat and my body hurt from last weeks surgery.  I wanted to move, I wanted to be dancing with them.  It was, for a moment, a little solo pity party, but then as I watched and thought and felt, it occured to me, that I am changed.  I was watching this piece with a very new lens.  

My new lens allows me to truly be in the moment.  It allows for me to enjoy and for me to feel deeper than I had before.  This lens shows me what is most important in life.  It has made me feel more and think less.  And right now, that is a great thing.  

Thursday, July 21, 2016

The Surgery

The cancer has been removed.  They took out a lump with surrounding tissue that was about the size of a clementine.  I like the idea of removing a small orange from my body.  I am not sure why, but I like that image.  Definitely better than a golf ball, way more organic for sure.  

Yesterday when I went to Juravinski for my care I was totally overwhelmed with love for those nurses and doctors.  From Sheila, the nurse who has been working there for 35 years and will retire on Monday, to the anesthesiologist who had kind eyes and wore the hot pepper surgery cap, to Dr. Susan Reid, who was kind, funny and had a voice like Cybill Shepard, a bit raspy and so calming.  

As I went toward the operating room, I walked by surgeons who wore something that looked like bicycle helmets and was told that they deal with more intense surgeries that involved cutting bones and that the helmets were actually visors to prevent the icky stuff of bodies from getting on their faces.  Well, that just about put me over the edge and I started talking a mile a minute, and I didn't quite realize it but I was FREAKING out!   

We opened the doors to my operating room, and there were 5 or 6 women, who all surrounded me quickly and began the process of getting me prepped.  I told them that I felt like this was some sort of coven of amazing women, and that I loved them.  I was given some ativan for anxiety and the last thing I remember was a mask being put on my face. 

I awoke about 4 hours later and the first thought that came into my mind was that they had made a mistake in the surgery. 

"Uhm, excuse me? Hello? I whispered in my gravelly voice. "Am I cross eyed? I think I am cross eyed?'
"Nope.  Your eyes are just adjusting. It's something that happens after surgery." smirked the short haired nurse. 
"I really think I am cross eyed.  My son would like that.  He's five."

As I started coming to, I asked a lot of questions.  Is the cancer gone? I am alive? Can I drink some water? When can I have chocolate pudding? The bells around me would go off and I would be reminded to take deep breaths.  I drank water and continued to breathe.  

Soon enough I was wheeled from the Recovery Room to the Same Day Surgery where I was reunited with my amazing team of my mom Carmen, and my husband Dave.  We hugged, and I cried a bit, and we all felt relieved. 

I know that this surgery is a mild one for sure, but it really made me think about life.  As the mask was put over my mouth and nose, for one moment, I thought, this could be my last moment.  Who knows what could happen?  And for one brief moment, before I fell asleep, I just felt love.  A very calm and simple love.  

Wise Words from Gilda

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Books and Boobs

The house is quiet.  My son is asleep and my mother and husband have stepped out for an hour.  I am sitting on my couch surrounded by my 2 cats and a dog and I feel calm.  It's a deep calm that has only come upon me in the past 15 minutes as the house settles and everything falls asleep as the sun sets and the darkness comes. 

Tomorrow is my surgery.  I will be having a lumpectomy and a sentinel node biopsy, which in normal talk means that they will remove the tumour and 3 lymph nodes to see if the cancer has spread.  I have been meditating that it hasn't, and hope for the best possible outcome.  

It's been a flurry of activity here the past few days. Friends I've known for ages, and then new ones that I have only recently connected with have been taking care of me, and bringing my little family all sorts of sustenance.  I am so grateful for this community that I am a part of.  I feel full of love, and to feel that the day before surgery, well, that feels like magic.  

A lot of my visitors have been asking how I found my lump.  It's a bit of a mystery to the doctors too, as it isn't detectable on the mammogram.  The response to that question is a bit odd.  The way I found my lump was by reading. 

I read every day.  I sometimes read a few pages.  Sometimes 5 chapters, and sometimes a whole book.  It's part of what makes me focus, an act that connects me to the human spirit, and it inspires me to live honest and true every day of my life.  Reading makes me feel less alone in the world. 

Now, when I read I drink tea. Sometimes I snack and I often touch my boobs.  It's not a sexual thing, because believe me,  after you have a baby and you breastfeed, breasts are not really sexual, they are more like comfort givers. 

The upside of reading daily, is touching your boobs daily and you know what they feel like.  So the moment that a funny little lump appeared, I knew that something was wrong.    Fast forward to today, and the doctors can not believe that I found this myself. If it weren't for the time I spend reading and poking my boobs, I would not have found this lump, and time would have passed and the lump would be much larger and things would have been much different. 

So I feel like I owe the Book Gods.  I will never stop reading.  I will always have a stack of books by my bed side.  I will always tell people to read books, and now, I will also urge them to touch their boobies as they read.  

When i was a kid there was a lot of ads about monthly breast exams.  But somehow they illustrated it in a rather creepy way.  I never liked them and I never really followed the instructions. 

So, to all of the women and men in the world, no matter what age you are, please please touch your boobs on a regular basis.  Read Books. Touch Your Boobs.  It is how i found my cancer so early. 

This time tomorrow I will be recuperating from surgery and the tumour will be out of my body.  To me, this is a thing to celebrate.  I think it will be the perfect time to start reading a new book.  

Friday, July 15, 2016

Information and Care

This morning I had an appointment at Wellwood.  Wellwood is an excellent cancer care centre in Hamilton that takes care of things other than the medical diagnostic bits. They take care of people on the whole, offering yoga, tai chi, meditation, together with support for cancer survivors, their families and caregivers.  

A few days after I was diagnosed, I starting searching for a place where I could get information. You see, I am an information junkie.  For those of you who know me personally, you know that I have worked in bookstores for over 20 years.  My house is full of books, too many books, maybe, but that's okay. Because I love books. To me, they are friends, sources of information, as well as inspirations.  I have books on lots of things.  Books for kids, books for creativity, books on books and books with information.  It's the way that I figure out what i don't know what to do.  I read, and read and read.  I look for places to go, for things to do, I look for resources.  

I was told by a handful of friends, that Wellwood had those resources and more. So off I went. 

The first time I visited I drove up to the new building on Sanatorium Rd. I sat outside and cried in my car.  I just didn't want to have cancer.  I really felt like, it just wasn't fair.  I have a 5 year old, and an amazing husband, and I have a lot of art to create. Cancer should happen to old people, not to people like me.  Of course, I know that cancer hits everyone, regardless of age, gender, religion.  This stupid horrible disease gets everyone. 

When I walked in, I was greeted by a wonderful woman.  She sat me down and talked with me.  Not about the specifics of my diagnosis, but about how I was feeling.  She told me about the center, and more than anything, she made me feel better.  She calmed me and reminded me to breathe.  At the end of our talking, I found myself sitting on the floor in their library surrounded by books.  I was in my happy place.  Books about coping, books about health and books about cancer. Of course. I signed out a few books and left feeling hopeful. 

Today's stash of books on cancer along with a pillow for my post surgery healing!

This morning I went for a reiki appointment.  I was a bit skeptical at first, because I am someone who likes hard, deep massage, not little fluffy touches. I am slightly allergic to hooky dooky new agey music, but I am aware that I need to be open to as many options as possible. When the session started my monkey mind was active and negative.  As she placed her hands on my eyes, my arms and my hands, voices in my head were telling me how this is such a waste of time.  By the end of the session, I was calmed, with visualizations of blues behind my eyes and energy flowing. On my face was a smile. 

Before I left, I went to the library.  I returned some books and took out some new titles. I talked with another one of the workers at the centre. She gave me more information, about programs and groups, and she did so in a way that wasn't scary or overwhelming.  

After I left, I was struck by the amount of care I had felt in this centre.  The kindness of those who worked and volunteered there.  I do still wonder why this cancer found me, hadn't I had enough hardship in the past few years?  But now, I realize that it isn't personal, and that even though it hits us all, that there are resources, and places, and most importantly people who can help.  

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Asking for Help

Last Sunday I had the pleasure of selling some of my work at the Hamilton Zineposium and it was amazing.  For the show we had created an ad hoc company called MamaMax which features the work of me as well as my 5 year old son Max who has been working hard on making art for his colouring book zine.  I had decided that I would turn some of the posts from this blog into a Pity Face Zine.  

Now for those who don't know, Zines are hand made magazines written by anyone who wants to create one. They often combine illustrations with words and are photocopied in black and white.   I have dreamed about making a zine for a very long time, and never quite thought that my first one would be about being diagnosed with breast cancer but I can't complain because after many years it gave me something to work with.  I made a zine. I added some illustrations and a few handwritten bits, scanned it and then my husband made it all nice on the computer and we printed them up. 

At the show, there were two types of people.  People who were clearly so not comfortable with me talking matter of factly about cancer, and those who welcomed the conversation.  Many were surprised about how well I was dealing.  Surprised that only three weeks after, I had already done so much writing and talking about it.

A lot of people have been asking me why I am being so open about this time in my life.  I think it's simple and maybe a bit selfish.  You see, I don't want to be alone with this cancer.  I don't want to feel like I have been forgotten.  I also feel strongly about processing it the way I can, through my art.   I feel like one of the powers that I have in the world is opening my mouth, and speaking to things that are often quieted.  When I was a kid, cancer was only talked about in hushed tones, referred to as the c-word.  I don't want to contribute to a culture of shame that patients of this crap disease deal with.  I am honestly too tired of whispering about this and that, tired of taboos.  

I don't claim to know a lot of things in life, but I do know that cancer touches a lot of people.  For so many of us, we have had a parent, a friend, maybe a neighbour who has been diagnosed. But because we are not accustomed to talk about these difficult situations, people feel alone.  To me that is one of the crappiest things ever.  My hope is that by talking about my story, that perhaps someone out there won't feel alone, and will feel inspired to reach out to those around them.

But here's the thing, something i mentioned in earlier posts, that for me, it's hard to ask for help.  Twice this week I had to ask  for a ride to an appointment and for some help with childcare.  It took me a few days to muster the strength to do this, but when i did, it was such a relief.  

I realized that people want to help, and sometimes they don't know exactly how to help.  So giving them a concrete thing, like, please bring me soup, hang out with my kid, can you drive me to an appointment helps them help me, which makes everyone happy.  My community has been stellar with so many people reaching out to me. Even writing this makes me a bit mushy.  

Today I got a radioactive seed placed inside my tumour.  They used a geiger counter to make sure it was placed correctly.  It was very weird.  My friend Tor drove me to the appointment, and then, Karen picked up Max afterschool and hung out with him till dinner time after I had a nap. 

These days I am tired.  More emotionally than anything else.  The waiting is the worst.  In one week I will have surgery to remove this tumour, and we will be able to move on to treatment.  I will find out what I need more and more of as each day passes, and that will be welcome.  Wading in the unknown is tough, and knowledge is helpful, for me and my dear ones.  In the mean time, I continue to live out loud dear friends.  It's the only thing I know how to do REALLY well ;-)  

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Pity Face Party #1! Lovely Lady Lump with Lana Schwarcz

Welcome to our first Pity Face Party! Think about these parties as a celebration of the women who live out loud with this crappy disease. These will be posts that focus on artists who have continued to create during and after a breast cancer diagnosis. Sometimes it will be a performance, or an exhibit, and sometimes an interview like this one that features Lana Schwarcz, a stand up comic, theatre maker and puppeteer from Australia who will be performing her one woman show Lovely Lady Lump at The Staircase Cafe Theatre this weekend!

In 2014, Lana was diagnosed with breast cancer. So she went and wrote some jokes.

"Let me start by telling you I'm ok. I'm just in a small situation involving a pesky cancer tumour in my left nork, but I'm not dying and I'm the luckiest person in the entire world. Cos f*ck cancer, man. F*ck cancer."

Jokes, truths, and one of two poignant bits from a Melbourne comic who survived breast cancer.  


Tell us about your work as an artist.  
I am a stand up comic, theatre maker and puppeteer. 

Did you create during your cancer treatment? Did this show begin during that time or after treatment was done?

Creatively, I wrote jokes to do on comedy stages and performed during treatment - they were well received - in terms of punching up, well, everyone wants to make cancer the butt of the joke so there's no problem there. I was also writing a blog to keep folk informed and I inserted jokes wherever I could to make it fun and interesting to read. I also did radiation in the morning, came home and napped in the afternoon, and then performed in someone else's show in the evening so I didn't have the stress of producing my own show at that time, but still felt like I was working. 

What was the most challenging part of creating this show?

The most challenging part of making the show was ensuring that women who had been through chemo and/or had mastectomies felt comfortable seeing my experience of a lucky early diagnosis and didn't feel jealous or bad that I had kept my breasts and they hadn't. That was SO important to me - the show is about the thoughts you go through with diagnosis and addressing the fears of not knowing and the industry that surrounds it - it's also about my own story that hopefully will get everyone to an early screening. So making sure that women with more advanced cancer diagnoses were OK and not triggered by what I was doing was SUPER important. I love having survivors in the audience. I see them nodding their heads along and I know I am saying what needs to be said for all of us.

Advice for any of us artists who have recently been diagnosed with cancer and how we can continue being creative?

Advice to artists creating during this time - the creative process can be really stressful - producing your own work? Yeah. So I say stay in the game for your own mental health - it's really important. For me it was about being involved in someone else's show so I didn't have that stress of production.

Keep doing what you need to do. But take a break if you need to. Everyone is different.

Noting your experiences is really important. I wrote the show based on the blog much later - and going over the blog when I wrote the show I had forgotten so much. So diarise things and you can draw on them later.


Today it sunk in.
I have breast cancer.

I mean, sure, I was diagnosed about three weeks ago, but it wasn't until today when I was at the McMaster Pre Op Clinic that it became real.

The nurse looked at me and said, "Okay, so,  your surgery will take about an hour and a half, and you will be here for 3 to 5 hours afterward." When she explained how it would all happen, she gave me a "Great info package for breast cancer to take home and read." I burst into tears.

You see, in my life, I have been around a lot of cancer.   My dad had thyroid cancer when I was a teenager, and I remember being told that it was one of the "best" cancers to have.  I will never forget walking into my parents room to find my dad crying, with my Mom, because he was so scared.  My father was not someone who cried.  He was a loud, strong Spanish man.  He was a bit strict and I didn't see him cry much, so this left a big imprint on me.  After surgery and some radioactive iodine, he assured me that he was fine.

And then, about 13 years later, he was diagnosed with Multple Myeloma, a cancer of the bones, and he was given 3 months to live.  When he was told of his diagnosis he banged his strong fist on the table and loudly stated that he "Wasn't going anywhere...I have too much love to give!"  My father lived for 11 years with this horrible disease, and he was strong, full of love and life, until of course, he wasn't.  He passed away on August 10, 2013 and I miss him and think of him every day.

But here's the thing, I used to be one of my Dad's caregivers.  My mom and I would hang out with him at Princess Margaret Hospital in Toronto, taking notes, making him laugh, listening to the doctors and just being with someone that we loved a lot.  

As time went on, and I grew older, a few friends were diagnosed with different cancers, and I tried to help them out as much as I could.  You see, I am good at taking care of people.  And I like to take care of them. I imagined taking care of my loved ones, and being the caregiver for a very long time. 

It never occurred to me that I would be the person who needed help.  And right now, I am okay, but on July 21st, things will change.  After a lumpectomy and a sentinel node biopsy where they remove 3 lymph nodes to see if the cancer has spread, we wait to find out what happens next. (Fingers and toes crossed that it hasn't.)

During that time, I will need help.  And it honestly flips me out.

Today when i was getting my blood taken, I could almost hear my dad's voice.  He used to say that I took after my grandmother, his mother, in that I had no visible veins.  I was a challenge to nurses everywhere.  I remember him telling me that he hoped that I would never have to be in a similar position as he was, with cancer, a pincushion for nurses and doctors.  But here I am.  And I am freaked out, and so scared, but ready to move forward and make change in my body.  It's time to ask cancer to move on, get out, and leave me alone.

I sit here, with a bruised arm, two cats on one side of me, a dog by my feet, knowing that this time, I will be the patient.  This time round, I am the person with cancer. 

Friday, July 1, 2016

Puppy In a Pound

Since I have started this blog I have been asked numerous times about the title Pity Face. Some people immediately get it, while others are concerned that I am being mean, and that my sarcasm will push people away.  

As someone who has experienced a lot of challenges in my life, I have occasionally been looked upon by friends, family and strangers with a very specific sort of look.  It's a head tilted, sad eyed, pouty lips look and it is often accompanied with a whimper or no words at all.  This my friends is what I call Pity Face.  

So when I was diagnosed two weeks ago, almost immediately I became the recipient of Pity Face many many times.  And I became angry, tired and snarky with that face. My response to those feelings was this blog.  

I do understand that people are sad, and concerned, and that they don't know what to say about such a scary thing as cancer.  I get that.  But when someone looks at me like I am a puppy in a pound and says nothing, I don't get that.  Pity Face is not a look that you should EVER give a person. A puppy in a pound? Sure. A kitten with a bad paw? Sure! But NEVER a person. I am in a shitty situation.  Yes, cancer SUCKS and YES! Why me?  BUT I am not cancer, I am still alive, and I will get through this scary time as Lisa.  The slightly altered but still same fiesty, live out loud, often happy, easy to tear up, no BS mama bear that I have always been.  

One woman looked at me and said "Oh my goodness! Cancer is so horrible, I can't imagine what I would do?", followed by a 10 second pity face stare!  And to her and others like her, I respond with a smile and say "Hey! Be happy! You don't need to imagine that, because you don't have cancer!"

Another person just tilted her head and made slumphy sounds and then walked away.  Huh? What was that?

So, friends.  Here is the deal.  If you don't want be the jerk who gives Pity Face, just remember that making me feel like there is no chance to get better, that i am to be pitied and shamed, that what i have is inconsolable is really crappy.  

Instead, simply say something.  Anything.  An "I am so sorry" followed by "I don't know what to say" works.  Don't be afraid of hugging me for real.  Ask me how I am.  I know that your face might still be sad and pouty and a bit lost, and that is okay if coupled with words that express care.

The world that we live in is sometimes a scary place, and stepping into the unknown is extra scary.  But please realize that seeing pity face after pity face is honestly depressing.  Pity Face makes me feel weak, and full of fear.  Pity Face is no good for anyone. 

The week before I was diagnosed, the lady from the local flower shop, someone i know only a little bit,  found out that I had had a biopsy.  I was about to perform a piece from my one woman show, and I was feeling unfocused and  shaky.  She came backstage, saw me, and hugged me in that safe, warm way that makes you feel like all will be good.  She looked me in the eye and said, "I have been through this, and you will get through it too."  And then she walked away. I did my show, and I felt good.  Supported and hopeful.  

So next time you meet someone who is dealing with crappy situation, please remember that saying nothing does nothing, but simply, honestly, asking them how they are, how they feel, that you don't know what to say, will be a welcome welcome change from the dreaded stupid Pity Face.