Maybe I’ll Get Breasts; Maybe I Won’t

(Excerpted from a guest post appearing on Survivorship Partners Blog.)

On the third day of 2006, at the age of thirty-two, I had a bi-lateral mastectomy. Because of the characteristics of my cancer the surgeon was unable to spare any skin or tissue on my left side and we decided it made sense to wait until after radiation to consider reconstruction.

Now almost seven years later, I still haven’t had reconstruction. Part of me needed to live without breasts. It was the same part that, when I lost my hair during chemo, wore a scarf instead of a wig. I didn’t want to hide my diagnosis. To hide seemed to say I was ashamed. To be ashamed seemed to place blame. To place blame was to say this was my fault and that was not something I believed.

My cancer diagnosis wasn’t my fault but it became an essential part of who I was, of my story, history, identity.

When treatment was finally over I ran as fast as I could from the oncology wards of Seattle. I worked on recovering my health. My husband and I adopted two children. I wrote a book and when it was published I promoted that book. It’s been a busy decade. As one therapist said, someday you’ll look back on these years and have no idea how you survived so many life changes packed so tightly together. Totally.

One morning when my daughter was three she stood outside my shower, touched her nipples and said, Mommy, do you have buggy bites? I told her I did not and explained that before she was born I was sick and to help me get better the doctors had removed my nipples and breasts. I tried my best to help her understand that most women did have nipples, that she was perfectly normal, but by then she was making faces at herself in the mirror.

Click here to read the rest: www.survivorshippartners.com/blog

All Alone

We’d hoped to see our friends at the lake, and when she realized they weren’t there she cried. I was feeling guilty and thinking I needed to find more kids for her to play with. Then I looked out at her there on the dock and realized that this was exactly what she needed.

Sunscreen and Such Things

It’s the time of year when the Environmental Working Group (love those people) publishes their annual sunscreen report, rating the toxicity and efficacy of sunscreens. And I have some good news this year! I’ve made a few important discoveries.

First, here are a few products that I like (gawd, it would be awesome if someone was paying me for this placement but they aren’t).

For daily moisturizer and sunscreen I use this Cetaphil.

I’ve even found a sunscreen that EWG tolerates and that I like. It’s not all gooey and sticky. It’s the Neutrogena Sensitive Skin Sun block Lotion SPF 30. Be careful to make sure you get the right Neutrogena product because when you get above SPF 30 the ratings start turning red.

Now, this is the really big news… I’ve found a kids sun block that I like. It doesn’t even turn them blue and ghostly. It’s All Terrain KidSport Phineas and Ferb Sunscreen Spray, SPF 30.

Skin Deep beyond the sunscreen: there are now a bajillion +/- products in the database and it can be challenging to find and choose a new product. But, I’ve discovered that I can go to a category, like toothpaste, and start at the green end of the list and keep looking in the low toxicity scores until I find a brand name that I know I can get in my local store. Ta-da! Then I have what I need.

Do you all have any lotion or sunscreen products you really love? What are they and how do they rate?

Who in This Room and Writerly Things

It’s been a while since I did a book related post, no? Oh, I guess it’s been a while since I did any post. That explains so much. Anyway, there are a few things on the calendar this spring.

THIS Friday, May 18th, which is incidentally my mother’s birthday and the anniversary of the Mt St Helens eruption, the Young Survival Coalition is putting on a very fancy event at the Pan Pacific Hotel downtown. It’s called Courage Night (rawr) and there will be four of us writer and breast cancer survivors reading and talking. And as if that weren’t enough, there will be appetizers including “boneless buffalo chicken bites” AND “fruit skewers.” What more could a girl want? Also a no host bar. There’s that too. It starts at 7:00 and you can find out more info and RSVP here.

In the hope of encouraging and helping others write their stories, I’ll be teaching a free writing class at Gilda’s Club in Seattle on June 28th. Anyone who has been affected by cancer can sign up, and really, I can’t imagine many people can say they haven’t been affected by cancer, so that means you, you can sign up if you want. Really, I’d love to see you. Or you can tell someone about it. You can find out more and RSVP here.

Hope to enjoy a fruit skewer with you on Friday!

PS – if you’ve read Who in This Room: The Realities of Cancer, Fish, and Demolition, I’d love for you to write a review on Goodreads or Amazon or Indiebound or the wall of a public bathroom, wherever you’d like.

xoxo

Green Beans and Kids Eating Them

Thanks for all your nice comments on my last post. Things have been spotty here lately and for that I apologize. I’ve missed you all terribly and appreciate your love notes.  And, you guys have some very clever ideas.

So, as promised, here’s how you make the green beans. Throw a bunch on a cookie sheet and pour on a little olive oil. Rub them around with your hand to get them all stirred up. Salt them. I like lots of salt. Put them in the oven set to 425 F for about 7 minutes. Stir them up. Put them back in for another 7 minutes. Ta-da. Make lots. They’ll go quickly.

If you want something a bit more precise, you can go here.

On another note, kale chips? Really? I hear they’re awesome but have not had a positive experience. Someone convince me. Email me or leave me a comment with a recipe if you have one that works.

Next week: kale rice.

xoxo

Vegetables and Kids Eating Them

Do your kids eat vegetables? If so, which ones and how are they prepared?

If you don’t have kids, what are your favorite veggies and how do you like them best?

My kids are good eaters who are mostly fond of veggies. We exist primarily on roasted sweet potato/yam wedges, roasted parsnips and roasted green beans. I tell you what, those green beans roasted in salt and olive oil taste better than French fries. We’re also very fond of kale rice, carrot-orange soup and, good old, steamed broccoli. Little K can eat a good 2 cups of kale rice for dinner and Jo can eat carrot soup as fast as I can make it. Sometimes I pour it into a mug so she can drink it. We’re crazy like that.

Tell me about your faves and over the next few months I’ll plan to share my favorite recipes with you. Deal?

Breakfast: A Love Story

A few weeks ago, I taught a workshop in a foreign land. There was a long drive and a long night sleep. Then there was breakfast. There was a window booth. There was an egg and bacon. There was a big plate of fruit and a pot of tea. Oh, and yogurt. There was yogurt too. There were two New Yorker magazines and a very understanding waitress.

There were no dishes. There was no laundry. There was no spilling or crying or drama of any kind. There was quiet, uninterrupted peace, and, when it was all over, there was love. So much love. I hope you find love, whatever it may look like, this week.

SNL’s Version of Downton Abbey and Four Other Things I Love

 

  1. African American women with natural hair.
  2. Campbell’s Soup’s promise to make their cans BPA free.
  3. Christina Rosalie’s A Field Guide to Now is available for pre-order. Yes, please!
  4. Pam Houston’s ability to articulate the difference and similarity between fiction and non-fiction in writing “So rather than say my intent is to blur the lines, I would say that those lines are not useful to me as an artist. They don’t help me to get the story written.”
  5. Fancy Entourage – What’s better than Downton Abbey? The Saturday Night Live version of Downton Abbey. I can only find the video there. I can’t embed it but you can scroll down to the second image to watch. It’s worth it. TRUST ME!

What five things do you love right now?

The List

My grandmother was made of hardy Scandinavian stock and she died a month shy of her 99th birthday. She was forced to retire at 92 and, at her retirement party, she pulled me aside, holding my arm just above the elbow and said, “You know Katherine, I never meant to retire.” I called her Bestemor which I’ve been told is grandmother in Norwegian. I said, “Yes, Bestemor, I know, I know.”

When she started using a walker it became too difficult to get around the grocery store and she relinquished this task to me and my father. Every week, one of us did her “marketing.” When it was my week, I’d call her at 9:00 am Saturday morning and she’d answer on the first ring. She’d be waiting by the phone in her bathrobe and wingback chair with her note pad sitting on her drum table. She’d read the list over the phone, starting with produce, then moving to boxed foods, the dairy case and ending with meats. My dad and I tried to get her to email the list. She could type lightning fast, but she just never took to the computer (enter, Bestemor, press enter, or double click, that means twice). Eventually we gave up and resigned ourselves to taking the list over the phone.

With the list came detailed instructions. “I’d like two lemons. Katherine, do you know how to pick citrus fruit? They should be large. They should be large and have smooth skin. I’d like two large lemons with smooth skin. Did you get that Katherine?”

I did my best to not speak during our phone calls as she was almost completely deaf, but sometimes it couldn’t be avoided. “Yes, Bestemor.”

“What?”

“Yes, OK.”

“I’d like two bananas if they’re big and three if they’re small. As green as you can get.”

“I’d like four kiwi, but only if they’re from New Zealand. Katherine, don’t ever buy kiwi that isn’t from New Zealand.”

“I’d like a spaghetti squash, a small one. If they’re large, ask the produce man to cut one in half, they’ll do that you know.”

“I’d like a quarter pound of that ham you like.” I don’t like ham.

“I’d like a four pack of that soft toilet paper that’s on special for $1.49. That’s a good price. You should get some for yourself.”

It went on like this for 45 minutes – carrots with the tops cut off at the register, two pears soft at the stem, and head lettuce, not to be confused with a head of lettuce.

Once I had the list I would drive to the grocery store near her house. I’d fill up the cart and load the contents onto the belt. Three-quarters of the pile was always produce. More than a few of the checkers, assuming the food was mine, commented on my healthy diet. I usually laughed and corrected them because back then, I ate to please my mouth without a care for nourishing my body. I was an invincible 20-something with a taste for peanut butter milkshakes and a vague idea that vegetables were important.

Bestemor was still alive and I was still occasionally doing her marketing when, at 31, I was diagnosed with Inflammatory Breast Cancer and given a 10% chance of living 5 years.

I was in the midst of six months of chemo and wasting away when I started seeing a nutritionist. She told me I had to rebuild my relationship with food. This was shocking for me to hear and also completely right. After years of undiagnosed gastro pain, without realizing it I’d developed a paralyzing fear of food. She gave me baking assignments every week. She told me to eat what I made. She told me I had to start thinking of food as something that would nurture me and save me instead of something that would make me sick.

I knew exactly what I needed to do. Bestemor had been training me, teaching me all that I needed to know for years. It wasn’t only that I needed to eat more whole foods, clearly I did. I needed to plan what I would eat. I needed to make a list. I needed to go to the store and choose the best produce. I needed to prepare meals I enjoyed. I needed to eat them. I needed to nourish myself.

I started right away, rebuilding my diet from scratch. I eliminated soy and gluten which were known trouble-makers for me, and I minimized processed foods and sugars. I planned a menu every week, sitting down with my favorite cookbooks, choosing a few recipes, making a detailed grocery list and doing my own marketing. I discovered the healing nature of the creation and consumption of a meal.

Now, I’m almost seven years out of treatment and cancer-free as far as I know. My husband and I have a four year-old and a one year-old. Keeping the family fed, especially the picky toddler, can feel like a chore piled on to an already full to-do list, but I find few activities to be more satisfying. On good days, when I can get the kids to occupy themselves, or, better yet help out, it’s a cause to slow down and to take a moment to nurture my family and myself. For me the process of meal preparation has become a meditation in healing.

It’s been five years since my grandmother passed away, but I think of her all the time, like in the co-op market where I shop. I know the produce men there. We chat. They’re very knowledgeable and she would have liked that. Sometimes I think about her while I look for cantaloupes that are heavy and sticky on the outside and watermelons that sound hollow. Sometimes I pick up a few kiwis if they’re from New Zealand, and I almost always buy carrots, though I never ask them to take the tops off at the register. I can do that much for myself because, after all, I’m made of hardy Scandinavian stock too.

Katherine Malmo is the author of Who in This Room: The Realities of Cancer, Fish, and Demolition. It can be purchased anywhere books are sold. For more information visit www.katherinemalmo.com.