Friday, May 30, 2008

book review*: escape from amsterdam

Escape from Amsterdam, by Barrie Sherwood was a quick, fun and compelling read. And, for a first time novelist, the guy can write.

Any writer who can throw in a reference to reading War and Peace, at the end of a violent scuffle (in this case, to illustrate the length of time spent waiting for the elevator to escape said scuffle) has earned my admiration and caught my interest.

The novel is the story of Aozora, a cynical, bitter university student who is not much engaged with the world around him. He is also deep in debt to a local gangster, after losing too often at the Mah-Jong tables. An inheritance from an aunt may save his neck but to collect the money, he must find his sister, Mai (who has inherited along with him).

Aozora’s search for his sister leads him to the South of Japan, through the red light district and underworld to a gigantic theme park called Amsterdam. Along the way we meet a cast of characters reminiscent of the best of Carl Hiaasen (if Hiaasen’s novels were set in Southern Japan). The action moves quickly and even the most violent scenes are touched with ironic humour.

I didn’t much care for Aozora as a person, but I don’t typically have a ton of patience for the studied cynicism of middle class disaffected youth (although I did warm to him towards the end of the book, as he goes some distance to redeem himself). But I did appreciate his ability to laugh at himself (even after being thrown off a bridge by a pair of thugs or being chased at gunpoint by a gangster who just found him in bed with his girl). However, I appreciated the book’s cast of characters as a whole, most of whom are deeply flawed yet seem to have at least one redeeming characteristic.

The book’s setting is a character in and of itself – modern, tourist-driven, westernized Japan at odds (and yearning) for more traditional times. The author’s descriptive passages were perhaps what I loved most about the book, not overdone but highly evocative.

I also loved his descriptions of people. An old woman is said to have “the face of a dried prune” while a mobster is “a cross between Kim Jong-Il and Liberace.”

I can’t help but wonder, though what a Japanese reader would make of the book. While Aozora is Japanese, Sherwood is not and I don’t know enough about Japan or its culture to judge the authenticity of his voice.

The book is sprinkled with black and white illustrations. I am not sure that they added anything to the narrative and I actually, for the most part, just found them to be unnecessary distractions from the text.

On the whole, I really enjoyed Escape from Amsterdam and I found myself thinking about it when I had to tear myself away. look forward to another novel from Barrie Sherwood.

*This is a review of a book that was sent to me via Library Thing's Early Reviewer Program.

We hope you find the time to read the book and review it on LibraryThing. You are free--indeed encouraged--to put your review on your blog, or wherever else you want, and to talk about it in the Early Reviewers group. I want to repeat that, although writing a review will help your chances of getting more books, the actual content of your review will not.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

this sums it up perfectly

If my life had a mission statement, this would be it.

Image and sentiment, courtesy of Sara, as this week's contribution to Love Thursday.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

next year

Hopefully, I will be doing this at the 2009 BlogHer conference.

How cool is that?

And how cool is it to be planning for a year from now?

Chemo today. I will try and keep this happy thought in mind over the next couple of days.

Monday, May 26, 2008

flurry of activity

The last few days before chemo are always very, very busy.

All day today, I kept thinking of really great blog ideas.

But now I'm too tired.

And my head is full of snot (thank you to D. for that).

So after sitting and staring at the computer for an hour, I am off to bed.

I'll try to come up with something better when I next post on Wednesday.

Chemo tomorrow am.

Good night.

Friday, May 23, 2008

fond in spite of it all (and he is pretty spiteful)

Remember Eli?

Eli has taken to chasing his tail (and catching it) again, an activity that apparently became an obsession when I was in London (he doesn't have to like me, apparently to miss my presence in the house during the day). Upon my return, it became routine for us to wake up in the middle of the night to the sound of a hissing, spitting cat fight taking place at the foot of the bed (and we only have the one cat).

Last Monday morning, I was sitting in the living room when I heard ear-splitting yowling coming from the kitchen. I ran into a scene straight out of a horror movie, as blood gushed from a three-inch gash at the end of Eli's tail. I simultaneously applied pressure and called the vet.

It turns out that he also had severely impacted anal glands (sorry if this grosses you out, I did warn you, though the blog is "Not Just About Cancer") and is hyperthyroid (this will mean medication for the rest of his life.

Every morning, I now find myself administering antibiotics and thyroid meds, then feeding wet food that has been sprinkled with metamucil to the cat, even before I have had coffee or breakfast.

And we haven't even begun to deal with the crazy (because although the anal glands and the thyroid problem may have made things worse, they aren't really the root of the problem).

OK, so maybe I feel a little sorry for him.

After fourteen years, it's hard not to be a little attached.

And he's always had a certain sociopathic charm.

I've got to go hold him down now, so that my spouse can change his bandages.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

teaching and learning about persistence

Part One (in which running is harder than walking)

Yesterday, my oldest son and I went running.

He is a couch potato and I want him to get fit and get moving.

I used to be a runner but stopped shortly before my surgery in 2006 and have not run since.

S. balked at this proposal at first but I stood firm. Then we saw Run Fatboy Run and he came around (he adores Simon Pegg. And the 'slacker turns long distance runner and gets the girl' theme really appealed to him. Whatever works, I figure).

We did Week One of a beginner's run/walk programme. We ran for one minute and walked for two minutes for a total of twenty minutes (we also did ten minutes of walking to warm up and cool down on each end). Even though I walk almost every day (and sometimes quite briskly), I really felt it (I was also running in a pair of really crappy old shoes which I threw in the garbage when I got home). It's hard to imagine that there was a point in my life when I was able to run for more than an hour and that I once finished a half-marathon.

And S., who had started by saying that he can walk faster than I run (which is true), was panting pretty hard at the end and asking "are we done yet?" Every few seconds.

Still, we both agreed that it was hard work but not overwhelmingly so (I even think that S. was a little proud of himself) and that we would keep at it. I told S. that I expect him to finish the programme with me (in ten weeks we will be running for twenty minutes in two ten-minute increments) and then he will be off the hook.

By then, I am hoping that we will both be addicted.

He was asking yesterday about running a marathon. I think it would be fun to do a 5k together.

We'll see.

On Friday, we will go out and do it again.

Part Two (in which I am pretty)

It was well past D.'s bedtime last night when he asked if he could 'do' my hair. I couldn't resist.

Ever since I was a little girl, I have loved having my hair brushed. This hadn't happened for a very long time. My hair hasn't really been long enough for years and when it was, there wasn't anyone in my life who was interested in brushing it.

D. set to gently brushing (he was standing on the bed as I sat on it). As he worked, he would make comments:

"Tell me if I hurt you."

"S's hair tangles because it is curly."

"Your hair is like mine and S.'s is like Papa's."

"In the light, your hair looks golden."


"I like your hair, Mama."

After brushing, it was time to add some adornments. We both loved the end result:

I have been growing out my hair since it started growing back after the Adriamycin. What you see is the result of almost two years of persistence (I am sure that the current treatment regimen has slowed progress, too).

Recently, I have been thinking of giving up. I had very short hair in the months before my diagnosis and I keep coming across photos of myself with short hair in which I think I look pretty good.

But after last night I don't want to cut it any more.

And I've invested in all these cute little clips. Who knew I could wear them all at the same time?

Update on my heart situation: I just got off the phone with my oncologist. He's not really worried about the drop in my ejection fraction. We're going to proceed with next week's treatment as planned and he is going to book an echo cardiogram for me and see if it gives the same results.

People who would know have been advising me that such tests can produce inconsistent results and it seems that my oncologist agrees.

Cross-posted to Mommybloggers.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

thumpity thump (or rather, whoosh, whoosh)

Last week, my appointment with my oncologist was cancelled. Apparently, he was very sick with a high fever. Having a cancer patient's selfishness, my first thought was, "Oh! It's good that I won't be coming into contact with him then!" Then, my more empathic self remonstrated and I wished him well, poor man.

The nurse who works with him was kind enough to confirm my CT results. The tech who did the scan (or rather her radiologist boyfriend) was right. My scan was clean and there is still no sign of cancer on the liver.

However, the nurse also told me that my heart scan revealed that my ejection fraction (the measurement of my heart's ability to pump blood) was down to 48%. Fifty-five per cent is considered normal (before I started treatment, my EF was 56%), so this is not as bad as it sounds. It is however, a fairly significant drop and likely an indication that the Herceptin is putting a strain on my heart (a common side effect of this drug).

This is not the first time this has happened. Adriamycin (the 'red devil') was also very hard on my heart, so we waited a couple of months to start the Herceptin, in order to give my heart a chance to rebound.

According to my oncologist, it is easier for the heart to recover from Herceptin than from Adriamycin. We've discussed the possibility of taking a break from Herceptin (while continuing with the chemo) if damage should occur, so I am confident that this is what he will suggest when I speak to him tomorrow.

I am really reluctant to stop the Herceptin, since it has worked so well for me. There is a voice in my head (one of several. You have them, too. Don't lie) yelling, "Don't mess with what's working!" But the truth is that it's not working if I need to start taking heart medication or worse, end up with heart failure.

So, if my oncologist suggests doing chemo only for the next couple of months, I will agree (what choice do I have?). I will wait for my heart to rebound (it's weird because I don't feel any different, really).

But I am just a little nervous.

And chemo won't be as much fun without the Demerol.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

a bad idea, going badly

It seems that the Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) 'snitch line' is attracting a lot of frivolous calls.

According to an article in today's Globe and Mail, the agency logs between thirty and forty calls to the hotline a day, the bulk of which are irrelevant or even downright malicious:

As one log demonstrates, many callers don't quite grasp how the immigration system works: "Caller would like to deport a couple of people from Canada and she would like the website address to fill out the proper forms. Advised caller that it is not her decision who gets deported. Caller does not care."

Another person calls the watch line from prison - where he is serving time for assault and forcible confinement of his girlfriend - to report his girlfriend is engaged in a paid marriage of convenience. "There is a small concern about his credibility," a CBSA employee notes.

Um, yeah (I really love the understatement here. No doubt most CBSA employees would agree that their time could be better spent than answering and logging these kinds of calls).

The snitch line was an ill-conceived plan and one that exploits the basest of human tendencies. Encouraging Canadians to spy on their neighbours is distasteful and unproductive (to continue with the understatement). I think our tax dollars could be spent infinitely more wisely.

"Caller states he has a problem. His wife's family is interfering with his marriage and he doesn't want them to come to Canada," a watch line employee writes.

"Advised him to speak with his wife."

I have a new post up at Mommybloggers! It's about my boys playing hide and seek.

Friday, May 16, 2008

another one for the 'if only' files

First we find out that Vitamin D is thought to prevent breast cancer.

Then came today's news that breast cancer is more likely spread in women who are deficient in the sunshine vitamin (from the Globe and Mail):

Women diagnosed with breast cancer are nearly twice as likely to have the disease spread to other parts of their bodies and are 73 per cent more likely to die from it if they have low levels of vitamin D, according to a Canadian study...younger women tended to have the lowest levels because they generally didn't use vitamin D supplements, which older women often take to prevent bone fractures.

“Vitamin D deficiency is common,” observed Pamela Goodwin, senior investigator at Mount Sinai Hospital's Samuel Lunenfeld Research Institute in Toronto and principal researcher on the study. “It's associated with high-grade tumours, and in our data set, it's associated with an increased risk of [cancer spread] and death.”

Thursday, May 15, 2008

bloggers unite for human rights

May 15 is the day that bloggers around the world unite to speak up for human rights (you can find out what some BlogHer contributors have chosen to write about by following this link).

I have been thinking all day about what I would like to contribute.

I visited the Amnesty International site and added my voice to their campaigns about human rights violations in China and in Guantanamo Bay.

I thought about my friend Eve Goldberg and how she wrote a song and then offered it to Amnesty to use in its campaign to end human rights violations in Burma.

And I thought about my own country where:

Far too many children still go to school hungry.

First Nations Peoples are still treated like second class citizens.

and my government has been complicit in many gross abuses of human rights (here's another example).

And I was thinking today that it's been a while since I have done much to address these injustices.

I vote.

I sign online petitions.

Sometimes I donate money.

And I can talk a good game.

All of these things are important but I think it's time that I resolve to do more. All too often, I let the opportunity to speak out, call my MP or write a letter slip by me. I simply assume that someone else is on top of it.

I resolve to take a little more action, step up and speak out when I get the chance. It only takes a few minutes to call my MP and only a few more to write a personal letter. And I can write more, right here in this blog about human rights at home and abroad.

I'll think a bit more on all of this and get back to you.

And speaking of human rights, good news coming out of California today, no?

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

10 lovely years

For the last while, blogging has taken a back seat to a bigger project. I am finally done (at least for now) and have time do a little catching up.

It's been a busy time and there is much to write about but, most importantly, I need to tell you that on May 10, my first born son turned ten years old.

We celebrated him in grand style, with presents, a movie outing, a walk in the tulips, family, Chinese food and still more presents. The next day, we were informed that the only thing he regrets about his birthday is that "it only lasted for twenty four hours." And he slept for eight of them.

It really was a beautiful day and the birth of this child is a wonderful reason to celebrate.

I like to tell the story of the day he was born. He came into the world on Mother's Day, after I had been labouring at home for many, many hours. When our midwife decided that it was time to head to the hospital, we set out along the route we had planned (we were fairly new to the city). We had to find an alternate route in a hurry, though, as our chosen route (and the fastest one) was closed off, due to a "Mother's Day" race. As I moaned in the car beside him, my poor spouse pulled out a map and plotted a new route to our destination, as the runners streamed by.

I also like to remind S. that his birth was a long, hard, drawn out process. But the truth is that it was all worth it. I love him so much and I couldn't be prouder of this smart, loving, creative, funny boy.

10 things S. did this year to make me proud:

1. Helped his little brother to write a series of stories, with titles like, "The Boy Who Got Stuck in the Toilet," and its sequel, "The Boy Who Got Stuck in the Sink." He then directed the movie version of these stories and created the best movie trailer ever.

2. Travelled to London with his mother, where he was mature, flexible, good-humoured, fun, patient, responsible, thoughtful and a terrific companion.

3. Looked out for his little brother, even when the littler one made that very challenging.

4.Learned to knit, demonstrating persistence and patience.

5.Made me laugh out loud, almost every day.

6.Hugged and kissed me whenever he saw me, even in public and even in front of his peers.

7.Proved time and again that he has a compassionate, empathic soul.

8.Learned to forgive and move on.

9.Was true to himself.

10.Gave me glimpses of the man he will become. I will be proud to know him then. I know I will always feel lucky that this terrific human being is my son.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

blogs as a healing force

A while back, I put in a proposal to speak at the BlogHer conference (taking place from July 18-20 in San Francisco). A few weeks later, BlogHer founder Elisa Camahort, wrote back to say that, in fact they did have a panel that she thought would be "right up my alley."

Never one to leave a good metaphor unflogged, I responded excitedly that the panel sounded like it was not only "up my alley" but "parked in front of my house!"

It's called "Blogs as a Healing Force." I started this blog as a way to work things through and to communicate with loved ones. I had no idea it would become so much more. My online community (and I include folks I see in person and those I have never met face to face) has come to mean a great deal to me. Writing it has kept me sane through some of the darkest times. I even wrote a love letter to my blog when my lap top and I were reunited after a stay in hospital!

It will be a privilege to share my thoughts and experiences at BlogHer.

Speaking of privileges, I am a little in awe of my co-panelists:

Babz (who I first mentioned in this blog on Blog Day last year), who writes LoveBabz: A Life in Transition.

Susan (aka WhyMommy), who blogs at Toddler Planet.

Christine, of flutter: dark and divine.

I started to describe each of their blogs and decided that I couldn't do it as well as each of them already has. They are all beautiful, powerful writers. Each of them has left me speechless, moved me and made me cry. It will be such an honour to speak beside them.

Monday, May 05, 2008

when the bizarre begins to be normal

I have had two scans over the last few of days.

On Friday, I had a CT scan and was taken aback (but pleasantly so) when the technician informed me that she had checked and that there was no change from my previous scan and that there is still no evidence of cancer on my liver.

The events leading up to this conversation were a little outside the norm of what one should expect in a professional hospital setting, so I thought I would share them with you (actually, my spouse, when I told him, kept repeating, "You have to blog about this!).

I left for the hospital at around noon on Friday, still a bit woozy from the chemo and light-headed from fasting all day. I dodged construction in order to check in and seat myself in an unfamiliar waiting room. A few minutes later, I was handed two half liter cups with a clear liquid in them and told to drink them over the next hour and a half. "At around 1:30, someone will come and we'll get your iv started."

When, by 1:50, no one had come for me, I approached the front desk, where, once they clarified that I had in fact checked in and consumed my drinks, a man in scrubs (tech? nurse?) was asked about my place in the queue. He looked confused but said that someone would be along shortly, "They haven't forgotten about you."

Less than two minutes later, the same guy came to get me (which does lead me to believe that I had been forgotten). He led me back through the construction to a big room, with a few beds and two chairs in it for drawing blood. My guide gestured to the one empty chair and told me that a tech would be along shortly to set up the iv for the scan.

The two chairs in this room were extremely close together. The woman in the next chair and I were facing the same direction and could have put our arms around each other without stretching.

I had seen her come into the waiting room. She was young (anywhere from teens to twenties), wearing pajamas and an eyepatch. She also seemed quite weak and had been supported by the older (mid-forties? early fifties? I really go out of my way not to stare in these circumstances) man who was with her. Shortly after their arrival in the waiting room, they had been ushered out, around the corner and told that someone would be waiting to speak to them.

I don't know how long she had been sitting in the room where they usually do the blood work before I got there but within seconds of my arrival, a woman (who I later learned was a doctor) came through the door from the scanning room and began to speak to the woman and her companion in Arabic (I'm pretty sure it was Arabic).

They did not acknowledge me and there was nowhere for me to go. The doctor began to speak quickly, with the odd English word thrown in. I understood, "Ear, cancer, vocal chords." I also understood that there was a great deal of emotion in the room. I closed my eyes and turned my head away so that we could all pretend I wasn't there.

Within a few minutes, the door once again burst open and a diminutive red-headed woman called out my name. I was eager to leave but did take the time to say that I didn't have my iv in yet. "I'll do it in here," she barked (I didn't mention that for the last five minutes the fire alarm had been wailing in the background...)

"I brought you in here because there as a very hard conversation going on and I thought she deserved some privacy."

My eyes widened and I nodded vigorously.

"And you, too. It's not nice to be listening to that."

She then took down my particulars, prior to the test. When I told her that I was undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer that had spread to my liver, she grimaced, "Then that conversation must have been particularly hard for you. My co-worker didn't realize what was going on when he put you there. You shouldn't have had to hear that, especially as a woman."

Bearing in mind that I hadn't understood much of the conversation and had been acutely uncomfortable, I remained mostly silent during this ongoing monologue.

Tech: "Did you have a lumpectomy or a mastectomy?"

Me: "Mastectomy."

Tech: "Good! I used to do mammograms and my fiancé works at (a clinic that women go to for diagnosis of breast cancer). You could say that breasts are our life. Other than the fact that I have two."

Somewhere in the blur that followed she asked and I informed her about my initial diagnosis, the mets and how my liver had originally been "riddled with tumours" but that I had had three clean scans (with no signs of cancer) in the last year.

She was duly impressed.

A few minutes later she asked, "Doesn't breast c.a. usually spread to the brain or the bones?"

Me: "It can also go to the liver and the lungs."

Tech: "Liver, then lungs."

Me: "Liver or lungs." (I didn't have the energy that mets can manifest itself in other ways, too, such as skin cancer.)

By this time she was tapping on my arm, getting ready for the iv injection. "Do you usually have good veins?"

Me: "No." (Veins tend to shrivel up and collapse when you are undergoing chemotherapy. The cost of this has been driven home to me quite graphically)

Tech: "I'll get you the first time. I'm the girl they always go to when they have trouble getting a vein."

Me: "Then you're the girl I want to be doing this."

She trussed me up with two tourniquets and did it in one go. I was impressed.

Me: "That's awesome!"

Tech: "Thanks! It's because I like doing it. I am a sick, sick woman."

Me: "You are sick!"

Tech: "I also like giving barium enemas. No one understands that. But wouldn't you rather have someone who likes doing it give you your enema?"

And with that, she set up the iv, explained the procedure and left the room so that I could be scanned.

When it was done, I heard her voice through the intercom, "You can relax. I'm just going to take a look at your films."

A few minutes later, she came in to unhook me from the iv. While she was doing that, she said, "To make up for what we put you through earlier, I had my fiancé look at your films and there is no change from last time. Isn't that great?"

I thanked her and said that it was. I think she was a little disappointed that I didn't react more effusively but I was too stunned, overwhelmed and light-headed (I had not eaten anything since the night before, nor had I had any caffeine).

She ushered me out a side door and I stumbled outside the hospital to wait for my friend D. to come and pick me up. I also called my spouse to give him the news.

This is the first clean scan that we haven't celebrated. This is due, in part, to the fact that I was still feeling pretty lousy (post-chemo) on Friday and partly to surprise (the import of this news didn't really sink in for me until I was out for a walk on Sunday afternoon).

However, I do think that we might be entering a place where we assume that my scans will be clean and that I am continuing to respond well to treatment. And I don't think that's a bad thing.

This morning I had another kind of scan, to make sure that the Herceptin isn't damaging my heart. I won't have the results for a week or so. I'm not too worried. But I am covered in some spectacular bruises along my right arm and on my hand.

Saturday, May 03, 2008

for a friend

Yesterday was Babz's birthday and I missed it!

I gather that the birthday was celebrated with friends, flowers and family. The day she'd planned sounded wonderful.

For her birthday this year, Babz had asked for written tributes from her friends. I am still a little muddle-headed post chemo but here is mine:

Big-Hearted Warrior

Larger than life

A woman whose love leaps off the page.
Honest. Joyful. Brilliant.

Head up through the toughest times
Facing the worst head on.
Strong. Angry. Determined.

Embracing the best life has to offer
Knowing how love and laughter heal.
Playful. Laughing. Ready.

This year will be a great one Babz, I know it. I can't wait to share a panel with you at BlogHer and that long anticipated glass of wine.

Friday, May 02, 2008

another clean scan!

I am not even supposed to know this yet.

I have just come from what was one of the strangest CT scan experiences of my life. But at the end, the tech told me that there is no change from my last scan.

She's really not supposed to do that but I am glad she did.

More on the scan tomorrow. Just wanted to share the good news.