Thursday, October 28, 2010

Love and Survival

Since my recurrence of ovarian cancer in mid-September, I have been doing a great deal of reading about what I could do to eradicate the cancer once and for all from my life. The studies on diet and exercise were not surprising, and I have radically changed my diet over the past three weeks. However, the importance of emotional well being and social support have been very enlightening. The title of this column is the same as a book by Dean Ornish about this very topic. He cites numerous studies about the key role played by family, friends, spouses and social connections such as church/synagogue or other community associations in fighting illness.

It turns out that being single can be a predictor of shorter survival times and an increased chance of recurrence. And the studies don’t just relate to cancer patients, in fact, Ornish’s work is primarily with heart disease, but the findings suggest that even the common cold can be better protected against with quality social networks and interaction. When we hear the term “social networks” today, we think of tools like Facebook and Twitter. Ornish wrote his book before these networks were available, but he does suggest that virtual relationships are not as meaningful as real face-to-face ones. Sometimes modern society can make us feel connected when we really aren’t.

The most striking study was conducted by Dr. David Spiegel and colleagues at Stanford in 1989. Published in the British journal The Lancet, they studied women with metastatic breast cancer. Spiegel initially set out to prove that social connection DID NOT have an impact on survival. Participants in the study were divided into two groups – both of which received the same conventional treatments such as chemotherapy, radiation and surgery. One group also met together for 90 minutes each week over the course of a year to talk about the impact of the disease on their lives. They became comfortable enough to share their feelings openly, including fears of disfigurement, abandonment and even death.

Five years later, Dr. Spiegel reviewed the data and was shocked to discover that women in the support group lived on average twice as long as the control group, and all of the women in the group without support were dead. Dr. Spiegel wrote the book Living Beyond Limits about the extraordinary findings of this study. Other studies have shown that support groups as short as six weeks long have had similar outcomes for the people who attended regularly. Each study controlled for diet, exercise, family history and other factors that typically impact disease and found significant advantages to social connection even beyond these other factors.

So, does that mean that those of us who are single are doomed to get sick more often and die sooner than our married or partnered friends? Absolutely not! In fact, marriages with problems – a great deal of disagreement or stress – have been shown to produce negative effects as well. As evidenced above, support can come in many forms: a close network of friends with whom you can share your fears, or even a support group of other people who understand what you are going through, a close family, strong ties to a religious or other community and a willingness to be vulnerable enough to truly open yourself up to others. That last factor is perhaps the most difficult for many of us, and yet, the most important to truly offer authentic connection. It isn’t the quantity of support that matters, but the quality!

Other factors that have been proven to influence healing and well being:
Roommates or living with family
Touch – massage, reiki or just holding the hand of a friend
Community involvement, service
Yoga and meditation (or other relaxation techniques)

If you are single and battling cancer or some other illness, connecting with the people in your life, or finding new sources of support, may be the most important thing you can do for yourself. Ask for what you need. Whether it’s talking on the phone more regularly, going out for a walk, sharing coffee once a week, visiting or hosting a friend or sibling for a weekend, joining a support group, participating in group meditation or yoga classes, serving others directly, or any number of other things you can do to connect with the world around you.

Experiencing this again has been incredibly difficult for me. Being told you have cancer the first time is shocking. You know your life has changed, and you are scared and uncertain about the future. Hearing you have cancer AGAIN, can be devastating. You know what to expect in some regards, how difficult it will be, and how much time it will take from your normal activities. It can feel like a betrayal of sorts. You have been there, done that, and thought it was in the past.

This recurrence has reinforced for me, how very important it is to provide a source of support for single people who are experiencing serious illness or injury. A new organization and support network, Solo Survivors, is in the works, though it may be a bit slower in gearing up given my own personal challenges at the moment. This dream started because I wanted to help others who were going it alone, but now I will get to figure out how to help myself in order to serve others. “We cannot hold a torch to light another’s path without brightening our own.,” as Ben Sweetland so aptly stated.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Power: A Single Cell

My birth number suggests power and abundance as two dominant traits in my life. Really? I have never felt especially powerful or abundant in the traditional sense, but lately, I’ve been examining these terms in non-traditional ways and discovered that I have quite a bit of both.

I have an abundance of friends. Truly I am so fortunate to continue to meet amazing people who support me so well when the going gets tough, in addition to celebrating the good times with me. I am blessed with good friends, near and far. I also have an abundance of freedom. I work from home for a non-profit that I founded, and can organize my days and months the way I see fit. I can go to a yoga class at 10 a.m. or the middle of the afternoon if I like or take a week off to visit my family. I can work when and how I like – from anywhere. There is a still a tremendous amount that needs to be done each day as the only employee of this organization, but I can do it when and how I like from a coffee shop or Timbuktu (not that I’ve been there).

Money has never been especially prominent or abundant in my life, but I am discovering that I have other types of abundance that make up for that in the form of friends who are willing to share their talents with me for free – guitar lessons, massages, coaching and healing sessions, time in their vacation homes. He is truly rich who has good friends.

Power has often seemed like an undesirable trait to me because so often those who have it abuse it for their own gain and to the detriment of others. To want to be powerful is thus seen as perhaps not an entirely wholesome thing for this reason. However, I have embraced my birth trait of power in the sense that I would like to have the power to help people, to inspire and to make a difference. I recently recognized that I am powerful in other ways as well when my subconscious intervened to bring to light some new cancerous nodules growing in my abdomen.

Since finishing treatment for ovarian cancer about four years ago, I have had regular follow ups with my oncologist which included CT scans and blood tests to watch for signs of recurrence. The visits had gone from every three months for the first two years to every six the last year and a half. When I saw him in February, my doctor decided we would stop doing CT scans since there had been no sign of trouble, and he was reluctant to continue exposing me to radiation unnecessarily (which has been proven to cause cancer).

My gynecologist is the one who originally diagnosed me after removing what we had thought was a benign cyst on my right ovary. We were all surprised when it turned out to be a rare form of ovarian cancer. She was comfortable with stopping the CT scans, but wanted to replace them with ultrasounds so that we could still get a look at anything that might pop up in there. I had my first one in April and got the all clear. The next one was scheduled for six months later – October.

This is where things get a little wacky. I had orders on my desk to schedule my six month follow up with my oncologist in August, and also for my October ultrasound, but when I went to schedule my doctor appointment, my brain told me that I needed to have the diagnostic test BEFORE that appointment, so I called the hospital and scheduled the US for early July. I have had enough mammograms, ultrasounds and all manner of diagnostic testing by now to know that I need to take the orders from my doctor with me when I show up at the hospital for the tests. They also remind you when they call to pre-register you a few days before.

Nonetheless, I showed up for my ultrasound on July 8th without the written orders. If I had taken them and the nurse who checked me in had asked for them, as she was supposed to do, she would have quickly seen that they said October and would have sent me packing. As it went down, it wasn’t until the technician was about to take me back that she said she couldn’t perform the test without my orders, and I realized I had forgotten them. Did I have time to go home and get them? Should I reschedule? “No,” she said. “You’re here now. I’ll just call your gynecologist’s office and have them fax them over.” They rewrote the orders for July and faxed them right over, and I got the test.

I knew immediately that something was wrong when the technician asked me to get dressed and hang around for a moment while she shared the tests with the radiologist to see if he needed anything else. They don’t do that when there is nothing to see – something was in there. This feeling was confirmed the following evening when I was sitting in the park reading and my gynecologist called to ask why I had gotten an ultrasound three months early (that was the first time I realized I had), and to tell me thank goodness I did because three small nodules were showing up that were cause for concern.

This call came after 5 p.m. on a Friday evening of my first weekend at home with no plans in months. I was looking forward to relaxing, reading, catching up with friends and taking it easy. My doctor told me NOT to sit around worrying about this all weekend, and I vowed not to, but it was tough. The initial shock of thinking the cancer might be back was tremendous. I immediately called a friend I had just spoken to and my voice broke as I left her a message about what was going on. Then I took some deep breaths, calmed down and went back to my book.

Luckily, the next afternoon, I had a meeting with my coach who reminded me that I could worry about this for the next month until I saw my oncologist, but it would only make me miserable. He was right, and from that moment, I literally put it out of my mind, and refused to let it weigh on me. For two months, between this test and my surgery, which confirmed the cancer was indeed back, I carried this knowledge with me and DID NOT let it impact my emotions. Now that is POWER! A friend recently bought me Michael J Fox’s latest book A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Future (which I highly recommend). In it, he offers this advice: “Never imagine the worst case scenario. It almost never comes true, and in the event that it does, you’ve lived through it TWICE.” We can’t control what happens to us in life, but we have 100% power over how we respond to it.

Next month: Here we go again. More about my treatment, challenges and triumphs this time around.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

I Don't Have Time for Cancer

Perhaps the most common reaction when faced with a cancer diagnosis is fear for your life, and I certainly had that, at least initially. I was lucky though, and was diagnosed early – stage II – so I never really thought that I might die. What bothered me most about cancer was the interruption to my life.

At the time of my diagnosis, I was the CEO of a small company, a whitewater canoe guide and an active volunteer with several different organizations. Just days before Memorial Day in 2006, I was told I had ovarian cancer, and I was immediately annoyed that I would have to be recovering from surgery and starting chemo during the fantastic Colorado summer! I labeled 2006 my “lost summer” as a result.

After four years guiding whitewater canoe trips on western rivers, I had just been handed my dream schedule with three trips on river sections I hadn’t done before. I was so looking forward to paddling the Dolores with its excellent rapids, the Colorado River above Moab and the famed five-day stretch of the Green River into Canyonlands National Park in Utah. I had never gotten that great a canoe schedule before, and I haven’t since. The only trip I got to do that summer was the guide trip three weeks before I was diagnosed. I still haven’t paddled the Dolores either!

As if that weren’t bad enough, I had just booked a trip to Alaska for the week after Memorial Day. Plane tickets had been purchased and reservations made for an adventure in Juneau three years in the making. It ended up being my one-year cancerversary celebration the following summer instead! I had been scheduled to present at two conferences, and had reservations at Mesa Verde – still one of the few national parks in the region I haven’t yet made it to.

I recognize my good fortune at having the luxury of annoyance rather than the fear of death. All things considered, I would take that again any day. But for a busy person like me with barely a free moment in my schedule to begin with, having to give up precious time in the mountains or on the river to sit in a chemo room, or lie on the couch recovering from surgery when the sun was shining was really trying.

I very much resented cancer’s interruption of my life, and the time required to fight the disease. . .time away from work that was important to me, traveling (which I love), and outdoor activities that feed my soul. It also cost me quite a bit of money – about $8,000 all told in doctor co-pays, prescription drugs and insurance deductibles. I would have put that money to such good use on awesome adventures if I hadn’t given it to cancer!

Four years later, summer is nearly over, and I just returned from the canoe trip for single survivors that I have been planning for the past five months. This weekend, 14 people joined us from across the country to embark on a three-day adventure on the Colorado River. Since I have been talking about providing services for the single survivor crowd for three years, this is a BIG deal for me – the start of something new and exciting! It was a big deal for them too. The trip was so rewarding and fun for us all. Here are just a few of the comments from the weekend:

“Thanks for four of the best days of my life. It’s been a LONG time since I’ve felt joy and at peace, and this weekend I felt both. Also, I feel hopeful again and inspired to get out there and really live. Thank you SOOO much!”

“I just wanted to say thank you for this weekend. It was something I really needed and came at the right time. I’m sure everyone on the trip had the best time of their lives, and you touched more lives than you can imagine - not just those attending, but those who are their friends, their family… etc. It’s quite amazing to see the change in people and you were the catalyst for that change. It was an honor to be a part of this event and I can’t thank you enough….”

The response has been tremendous, and we have a great database of people who are interested in future activities, even if three days camping on the river isn’t exactly their cup of tea or their schedule wouldn’t allow then to participate this time. We raised enough money to cover trip expenses above and beyond those generous organizations like Centennial Canoe Outfitters and Marmot who donated gear, Greek101 who donated t-shirts, and giving individuals who donated cash or frequent flier miles to provide travel scholarships. We couldn’t have done it without the non-profit sponsorship of Tamika & Friends, a rockstar planning committee, and river guides willing to donate their time and energy. Denver’s 9News did a feature story on the trip two weeks prior that generated local interest and added a few participants to the roster as well.

This entire experience has given me a feeling of profound gratitude for all of the amazing individuals who have contributed to making this trip happen, and created the foundation for a new organization to serve single survivors (Solo Survivors? Looking for a good name for the new venture – if you have ideas, email - would like for it to emphasize connection and relationship rather than alone-ness). If you are a single cancer survivor, and would like to be added to the mailing list for future events, please let us know.

Even if you are sick and tired of the hot weather and mosquitoes wherever you are, enjoy these last few weeks of summer. Get outside and do something fun. It will be cold before we know it, so appreciate the season and share it with friends.

Friday, July 30, 2010


It is so easy to get wrapped up in what is missing from our lives. The lack of boyfriend, fulfilling job or fat paycheck can loom large in our thoughts causing us frustration and disappointment. We tell ourselves that we need certain things to be happy, which only makes us “needy.”

Our thoughts then become a self-fulfilling prophecy, insuring that our focus on what’s lacking will create more of the same. We say things to ourselves that we would never allow others to say to us. These negative thoughts such as, “I will always be alone,” “I’m not good enough,” “I’m too fat,” contribute to a deep feeling of unworthiness that will keep us from getting what we want.

Oprah’s promotion, several years ago, of Sarah Ban Breathnach made gratitude journals all the rage for a while. Her books instructed us to write down five things a day we were grateful for. At the time, I had just broken my ankle in three places, couldn’t drive, walk or carry anything because of my crutches, and wasn’t feeling particularly grateful. But I started a gratitude journal anyway and was amazed at how easy it was to come up with five or more things a day to thank the universe for.

Focusing on and appreciating what we have is the best way I know to create more good things in our lives. Let’s face it - just by virtue of living in the United States or another first-world country, we have it better than most people in the world. Access to clean water, healthy food and medical care are givens in our lives. We are surrounded by abundance and comfort, and somehow we still find a way to lament the fact that we haven’t had a vacation in a while.

Over the years, I have often complained about “being alone.” In between boyfriends or during a dry dating spell, as friends around me got married and started families, I felt sorry for myself for what was missing. The loneliness, and sometimes even despair, was so palpable in my life that it blinded me to all the good things. The truth is that I have never been alone. I could literally drown in the sea of love in which I have been fortunate enough to swim my entire life.

Getting cancer was a fantastic reminder of just how many people care about me. I was overwhelmed by the outpouring of love and support from friends, family, co-workers, people I hadn’t seen or been in touch with for years, friends of friends, religious communities and cancer-related organizations just to name a few. I received more than 300 cards, not to mention all the flowers, gifts, meals and visits. Oh, and the people in my life raised nearly $10,000 for ovarian cancer research in my honor.

I am astounded that I could be in the midst of all of that and still feel alone in any way, shape or form. I may live alone in a one-bedroom condo, work from home without colleagues around and file my taxes as a single person, but I am FAR from alone! I am truly and deeply loved by so many people. If you took stock of your life, you would realize that you are too. Sometimes it takes something “bad” such as an illness or injury to help us realize all the “good” in our lives.

Recently, a friend from high school committed suicide. I hadn’t seen him in years or been in touch with him other than becoming Facebook friends. He still lived in our rural hometown in Kentucky and had recently gotten a well-publicized DUI. Speculation runs high that it strongly contributed to his decision to take his own life. Many on Facebook have commented about how many times they considered reaching out, but didn’t. He clearly felt desperate and alone to have made the decision that he did.

There are times in life when we all feel alone and lonely. That feeling is not reserved for those of us who are single or divorced. It is possible to be standing in a river of love and support and feel as if you are dying of thirst. And you don’t have to create an illness or injury in your life to be reminded of the love that is there. Just reach out. It is when we are feeling the most alone and vulnerable that we have the most difficult time opening up and sharing what feels shameful to us.

I am profoundly grateful for the love of my family and so many friends, and I love my life so much! I know that it will be enhanced when I find a partner to share it with, but it’s pretty freaking amazing right now. Take stock of what you have, and I know you’ll feel the same way. And if you haven’t done it in a while, reach out and tell someone in your life how much they mean to you.


Originally written May 23, 2010

Today is my four-year cancerversary. I was diagnosed at age 36 with a rare form of ovarian cancer, but I was lucky. We caught it early, and treatment was successful. Approximately 10 months after my initial diagnosis, I was declared cancer-free, and all of the follow-ups have been positive ever since. While the physical symptoms of cancer and the side effects from treatment have left my body, the emotional and psychological impacts likely never will completely.

Even though I am among many survivors who have declared cancer one of the best things that ever happened to me, there are still psychological downsides that arise when I least expect it – sometimes I recognize them and their source immediately, and other times, they are completely unconscious, and yet, the impact is still there. My story is not unique, and one aspect of it has resonated for me, and also with others who are part of this club none of us chose to join.

Cancer is tough, and I believe that even when surrounded by the best team in the world made up of friends and family, a significant other, great doctors, a supportive workplace, etc. etc, in the end, each person still goes through cancer alone. No one else can ever really understand what it feels like. When you are single, that lonely feeling can be exponentially greater. Even with all the supportive elements above, not having someone there 24/7 to support you during the darkest hours can be really hard. Just being single can sometimes bring up feelings of unworthiness or despair. Adding a life-threatening illness on top of that can be a big double whammy!

A recent survey of single cancer survivors highlighted some common themes:

· Nearly 80% report feeling alone.

· Just over 83% experience body image issues from scarring or other cancer side effects such as weight gain, missing body parts or hair loss.

· 65% have concerns about fertility.

· Almost 85% feel anxiety or inadequacy about dating and sexuality because of the above.

The top needs expressed by this population were:

· Connections with other similar survivors (77%)

· A book or other information about dealing with cancer as a single person (67%)

· Information about dating/sexuality (62%)

· Healing touch such as reiki, massage, etc. (61%)

For more than three years now, I have been talking about finding a way to serve this segment of the cancer survivor population. Even before I finished treatment, people who read my regular online updates suggested that I write a book, and I have been writing a monthly column about my experiences as a single survivor since 2007. You can see the archives and read them each month here:

I have also immersed myself in the cancer community attending summits and young adult alliance meetings with the Lance Armstrong Foundation, participating in cancer camps and retreats from kayaking to meditation, serving as an “Angel” for two different organizations and becoming particularly involved with groups serving young adults. The people I have met along the way have been amazing. They have helped me feel WAY less alone, and been so supportive as I try to figure out how best to serve singles with cancer. After three years of talking, I am finally beginning to gain some momentum, and I am thrilled to report that three events are in the works:

1. Canoeing & Connection: An Adventure for Singles with Cancer August 27-29, 2010 This three-day canoe trip on the Colorado River is for single survivors who are 21 and older and at least three months post-treatment. Sponsored by Centennial Canoe Outfitters and Tamika & Friends, this trip promises to be a fun and relaxing weekend in the beautiful canyons of Colorado and Utah. Go here for more information:

2. Singles with Cancer: Bootcamp Date and Location TBD (possibly November 2010) Sponsored by i2y – The I’m Too Young for This Cancer Foundation, this one day program will focus on the issues single survivors say are most important to them: dating anxiety, sexuality, body image, fertility, etc.

3. Love and Power: A Relationship Retreat for Singles with Cancer Valentines 2011 Offered in cooperation between Revolutionary Wisdom and Tamika & Friends, this retreat will address issues specific to singles with cancer while also delving into something deeper. It will not just be a workshop, but a weekend to help you tap into what is important to you and to connect with others. Love. Companionship. Intimacy and sexuality. These are vital aspects of our most intimate relationships in life, and finding ways to enhance and support these aspects of our relationships is important. For those of us who are single, these aspects are often the primary reasons we seek to enter into new relationships. Yet there is something greater which is possible -- a Soulful Relationship.

If you are interested in being involved with any of these events either as a planner or participant, please contact me at

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Seeing Things Differently

Wikipedia says that experiencing betrayal can produce similar feelings as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) – called betrayal trauma. It gives examples of situations that can give rise to this phenomenon: discrimination, bullying, hazing and false arrest. As someone who works in hazing prevention, this hit home to me on a professional level. Being betrayed by someone in whom we have placed our trust can be emotionally devastating, leaving deep wounds and trust issues in its wake.

I have experienced these types of betrayals a few times in my life, and the feelings that come with them are deeply seared into my psyche – shock first, then disbelief, anger, upset, hurt. It is natural to replay events for signs you may have missed that your trust was misplaced. We often blame ourselves in some way, allowing feelings of unworthiness to take hold and make us believe we deserved it somehow. We always blame the betrayer, allowing our righteous anger to shun the offender and carry us through what might otherwise be unbearable despair. Making someone else wrong means we get to be right, and “right” feels morally superior to “duped.”

Over the past seven months or so, I have been participating in programs offered by Landmark Education that along with previous work such as A Course in Miracles and the work of Byron Katie, have opened up to me a new way of being that literally allows me to see things differently. The basic premise being that we cause most of the despair in our lives by how we perceive an event, and that perception is molded by all the situations we have dealt with in our past. Something happens to us and we make up a story about what it means, and then we apply those stories to new events as they occur. This is human nature. It is a survival mechanism.

While these “stories” help us make sense of situations that cause us trauma or grief, they don’t serve our higher purpose. They allow us to get stuck in the story, wallow in self-pity, and make others wrong in order to feel right. We can literally transform ourselves by choosing to see things differently. It is not easy. It takes practice and sometimes coaching from someone who is not as attached to the situation as you are. Byron Katie’s work is helpful because she offers four questions you can walk yourself through for any situation in order to see what’s really true underneath the stories we have piled on.

Those of us who have experienced cancer, know all about survival as a concept, as do people who have been assaulted in some way. "Surviving" seems like a great goal at the time that you are faced with something traumatic, and being a survivor is a badge of honor that we proudly wear. However, the new way of seeing things I describe below will help move you beyond simply surviving to thriving and opening yourself up to new ways of being that you didn't think were possible before.

I recently had a chance to practice this in a situation that previously would have caused me weeks of depression, despair, judging, anger, processing, drama and beating myself up. I allowed myself to be swallowed up by it for a time – but for hours, not days. With the help of some good coaching and personal reflection, I was able to turn it around in less than 48 hours, forgive the betrayer and myself, take responsibility for my role in the scenario (probably the hardest part for most of us), and come out the other side feeling not just ok, but euphoric.

It is difficult to describe the power that comes with taking responsibility. When you can literally transform even the most harrowing of experiences by choosing to see them differently, you are no longer the victim, but the victor. You have control of every situation, relationship and experience and the power to either transform it into what you would like it to be or to let it go so it no longer has the power to hurt you. I still can’t quite believe I am able to do this. It is a miracle to me.

If you want to try transformation as a practice, I recommend the resources above, but you can also do it on your own by simple practicing these steps in the moment of despair, anger, hurt, frustration, worry, etc.

1. Sit still somewhere and center yourself with deep breaths, breathe evenly.

2. Meditate or pray and simply ask to see it differently. Over and over if necessary. This doesn’t usually come quickly.

3. Rather than placing blame, look for something you can take responsibility for – far from making you feel weak as someone who “gives in,” taking responsibility gives you the power to transform the experience for you.

4. Look for the “story” you have been telling yourself about the situation or about yourself or others involved. This is often based on past experience – “this always happens to me,” “I am so stupid,” “no one is ever going to love me,” etc. This can be a difficult step because our stories are our reality – they are the lens through which we view the world. They are such a part of us that they can be difficult to see. This is where an objective coach with some training might be helpful.

5. Be generous – what are the positives about this experience or person that you are currently struggling with? What opportunities is this experience opening up for you? How can your life be different as a result?

6. It might help to journal or write a letter to the person or organization. Whether or not you send it, writing often helps us identify our own feelings so we can make sense of them.

7. Be authentic. This isn’t about ego or saving face or being right. It isn’t about making the other person wrong. Work through these elements in your writing or thought process – how you’re feeling (I statements), what you’re taking responsibility for, and perhaps what you request in order to heal and move forward.

8. Let go of any attachment to the outcome, especially in relation to the other person. Your request may go unfulfilled or even completely unheard. That doesn’t matter. You can still forgive and let go even if the other party doesn’t feel or show remorse, admit responsibility or even receive the communication. This process is about transforming the experience for YOU alone.

I truly hope you will give transformation a try. I can’t even begin to describe the positive impact it has had on my life to be able to see things differently.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Love in a Bag

Every year, I volunteer for a local Denver service called Project Valentine. On or around Valentine’s Day, a team of drivers fans out across the metro area to deliver Valentine’s goodie bags to chemo patients – 600 this year. The annual project was founded by Colleen Anderson, an ovarian cancer patient – like me – who had her first chemo treatment on Valentine’s Day 2001. Though Colleen succumbed to her cancer in 2007, her project lives on, and brings smiles to cancer patients each February.

When you have a needle in your arm or a port on your chest and you’re attached to an IV bag dripping poisonous chemicals into your body for several hours, it’s amazing how little it takes to bring a smile to your face. I would revel in the friends who came to sit with me during treatment, take-out lunch delivered to my chemo chair, the hand-knit hats and scarves made by volunteers, and even the cheesy song accompanied by balloons performed by the staff for each patient’s last treatment.

Of course, it’s great to deliver goodie bags, see the smiles on patient’s faces, receive the hugs and thank yous, but so many people work hard year-round to make this project possible. Fundraising, seeking product donations, craft days, stuffing, sorting and picking up the bags for delivery all have to get done as well. There are countless volunteers who organize and work hard behind the scenes with little thanks or recognition. That is why I’m taking the opportunity of my column to thank them for all that they do to make this program possible. I am hoping their work will inspire you to do something great in your own community.

The Obamas have done a great job of encouraging service on Martin Luther King Day, as so many past presidents have also highlighted service as one of the best contributions American’s can make. Jimmy Carter has played a large role in the work of Habitat for Humanity. George Bush Sr. emphasized the Thousand Points of Light, which inspired the foundation of the same name, now merged with the Hands On Network. Bill Clinton founded the Clinton Global Initiative, whose mission is to encourage investment, grow the economy and create jobs through private-public partnership.

Martin Luther King said, “Everyone can be great, because everyone can serve.” There is something each of us can do to brighten someone’s day, and God knows there is so much to be done. You don’t have to be president to do something great. Look at Colleen. From founding your own non-profit, to volunteering with one in your community or just writing a check to a cause you support, you can serve in whatever way is best for you. Charities are really suffering in this economy, and anything you can give will be gratefully received. Out of work? How about donating some of your now abundant free time to a good cause. Jim Pancero said, “Doing something for nothing is better than doing nothing for nothing.”

I used to make it a point to send valentines to all of my single friends. V-Day, or “Singles Awareness Day” if you prefer, is tough on those without partners. Imagine how tough it is to be single AND have cancer. Yikes! That’s why one of my goals this year is to expand Project Valentine to send goody bags to single cancer patients around the country. I’m not quite sure yet how I’ll pull this off, but I plan to partner with some great organizations that are already doing good work such as Chemo Angels, I’m Too Young For This and Imerman Angels. If you have ideas about how to identify single cancer patients or make this project work, please share them with me, or feel free to share ideas you have for a project of your own. Thanks for what you do to make your community a better place.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

A Survivor Looks at Forty: A Single Cell

I am sitting on my lanai on the Hawaiian island of Kauai with my 40th birthday only hours away. As the waves from the Pacific Ocean crash against the rocks below, I can’t help but feel complete awe at the magnificence of my life. Tonight, and most days, really, I am the luckiest girl in the world! In this beautiful condo by the sea sleep four of my friends who said yes to spending my birthday with me in Hawaii. Two more join us in a few days. I am so blessed with so many amazing people in my life. That alone is enough to lead a fantastic life – how blessed are we who have good friends.There also happens to be a fascinating, handsome and funny man in my life at the moment. He finds me sexy, appreciates my brains and makes me laugh. What more could a girl want, really?

Three years ago, I stared ovarian cancer in the face. It was scary and inconvenient, but I was lucky. I received the multitude of life lessons that come from such a diagnosis, and got to walk away relatively unscathed – a few pounds heavier from the steroids that got me through chemo, one ovary lighter, and about a year with varying degrees of hairlessness. Not too bad a deal really in exchange for the rest of your life.

I had lunch last week with a “cancer buddy” – a friend I would likely never have met if a similar diagnosis hadn’t brought us together. She was not as lucky as I, and is already living on borrowed time. Though she has been doing chemo almost continuously for nearly three years now, the cancer is winning, and she knows she will eventually die from this disease. And yet, she lives her life fully every day, spending time with friends and family, golfing, skiing, kayaking and other adventures that even 100% healthy people don’t undertake. She travels and spends quality time with her husband, and talks matter-of-factly about her future, or lack thereof. She is my idol in every way. I feel blessed to have met her, and to learn from her, and I’m continually heartened by her courage and spirit.

Some might feel depressed at turning 40, and the over-the-hill jests are a given as people liken this monumental milestone to the beginning of a downward spiral, but I know better. I have come closer than many my age to the alternative, and turning 40 is more than cause for celebration to me. I have not begun to reach the highest peaks of my life yet, though I am feeling pretty far up in the pinnacles at the moment.

My Dad always swore that life began at 40, and I believe him. I am coming into my own, and I couldn’t be happier. I have a career that is so rewarding, get to do volunteer work that fulfills me, have great relationships with so many incredible people, live in a beautiful state and a fun city, and have the absolute luxury of two weeks in the islands for my birthday. Who could ask for more than that?

I know the year ahead is going to be incredible, and I am embracing 40 with a tremendous amount of affection and gratitude.

Friday, January 1, 2010


Exactly four years ago today I woke up, after ringing in 2006 with fondue and a few glasses of champagne at a friend’s house, to horrible stomach pains. What at first felt like the flu turned out to be the first symptoms of ovarian cancer, eventually diagnosed in May, and treated successfully throughout the rest of that year.

New Year’s Day always brings back those memories, and also reminds me how lucky I am to be healthy and happy at the dawn of another year. This holiday is also a particularly painful time to be single, and I’m reminded of that each year too as couples around me kiss in the new year on tv and at celebrations closer to home.

It is with both of these thoughts in mind that I resolve this year to finally make progress on two goals I have had for some time now. They are:

  1. To find a way to serve single people who are dealing with cancer.
  2. To write a book about my experience as a single person with cancer that might help others in the same boat.

Both goals are highly attainable, and progress has been made, but it has been slow. I am sharing the goals in this column to ask you to hold me accountable. By so publicly promising, after years of moderate progress, I hope to jump-start the process with the help of a strong support network with a vested interest in seeing these goals to fruition. There are many ways you can help:

If you are a single person who has had cancer, I want to hear from you. Your story could inspire someone, and you can share what services would be helpful to you as you navigate this experience. Complete the survey sponsored by the i2y Foundation and Imerman Angels here.

Send thoughts, ideas or just encouragement in the form of comments on this blog or email to: Check in occasionally and ask how things are going. This will remind me that I better have something to report when someone asks. I will also share an update each month at the end of my column. Short excerpts from past columns will be published in a book from Planet Cancer coming out this spring. The columns will likely be the basis for much of my book as well. I have been writing about living with cancer as a single person for almost three full years now, so there is lots of great content there. Let me know your favorites, or share topics you WISH I’d cover.

Let your favorite cancer organizations know what special support you might benefit from as a single person. There are lots of great organizations already out there serving the cancer community, and I feel no need to reinvent the wheel. If this population can be served through joining forces with existing organizations like i2y, Imerman Angels, MyLifeLine.Org, Planet Cancer, First Descents, Voices of Survivors and others, that is ideal. If eventually, a separate organization becomes necessary, that’s fine too. Help me figure out how to best reach single people and get you what you need.

I am planning to put together a dream team of single survivors to help me get this going this year. I know I can’t do it alone. I was lucky enough in November to connect with so many amazing people from the Young Adult cancer community and I will be calling upon them as well.

I hope you will make some resolutions this year as well. Instead of the same old ones about losing weight and saving money, be creative. What do you really want to do in 2010? Now is a great time to reflect and put some goals on paper. Share them publicly and ask the people in your life to support and encourage you to reach them.