Survivor Superstar: Terri Wingham and A Fresh Chapter want you!

Terri Wingham and baby small.jpg

When I first read about Terri Wingham, I had this crazy deju vu, like: This woman must be inside my head.  She believes, as I do, that travel may be the most powerful way to jump-start your life beyond cancer. And she has created what to my knowledge is the very first organization that offers travel for survivors. Terri's nonprofit, A Fresh Chapter, puts together "meaningful travel" expeditions -- big trips that allow cancer survivors to reconnect with themselves through volunteer work.  From now through September 17, Terri's accepting applications for her next India Odyssey, in March 5–19, 2016. 

Interested?  Here's Terri herself to tell you more.

1. What gave you the vision for A Fresh Chapter?

In 2009, at the age of 30, I was diagnosed with aggressive breast cancer. Friends and family rallied around me during the early days of treatment, but after 3 surgeries and 4 rounds of chemotherapy, the support had waned and I felt a tremendous amount of pressure to "get back to normal." I had no idea how to return to my life - let alone to the person I'd been before the diagnosis. I found myself grappling with unexpected emotions of sadness, fear of recurrence, survivor guilt, and anger.

I didn't want to stay in that dark place, but didn't feel like a traditional support group was for me. In search of inspiration and something epic enough to overshadow cancer, I had a vision of volunteering in Africa. Although at first it seemed impossible, I couldn't shake this dream. With the support of family and friends, I was able to fundraise enough to spend 6 weeks volunteering in an underfunded daycare outside of Cape Town. This experience changed me forever and set the stage for helping other people impacted by cancer heal the emotional scars of cancer through volunteering and meaningful travel. 


2. Why do you think travel is important to survivors?  And why pair travel with volunteering?

Cancer can rob us of our confidence and turn the world from a friendly place into a threatening one. Thankfully, travel opens our eyes to the broader world and reminds us of the possibility of new adventures. In a world where more people are surviving and/or living with cancer, it's so important to help build bridges from the isolation of disease back to meaningful experiences. To help people connect back to the world and back to themselves.  

Volunteering helps us move beyond feeling victimized by the disease to feeling like we still have so much we can contribute. It also gives us fresh perspective. I believe that when we have the opportunity to form meaningful connections with other people who are dealing with their own challenges of poverty, access to clean water, HIV, etc, we begin to see our own stories of struggle with new eyes. Developing connections with other people who know hardship, but who also demonstrate resilience, can remind us that we can survive and thrive through circumstances beyond what we would have ever thought possible. 


3.  What have you learned from cancer?  About the world and about yourself?

I won't say that cancer is a gift. I wish I hadn't had to experience all of the pain of the disease in order to also experience growth. Unfortunately, like all adversity, it bludgeons us with challenges, but also encourages us to broaden our view of the world and of ourselves. After my diagnosis, I was angry for a long time. Angry that cancer had robbed me of the vision I had for my life. Angry at my friends who were getting married and having children while I was losing my hair and my breasts. But it was only when I was able to give myself permission to grieve the death of some of my dreams that I started to be able to imagine new ones. 

I have learned that life is about contradictions and learning to live with both joy and pain, fear and excitement, ease and struggle. There is no perfect or magic life. We can only choose to make meaning out of what is in front of us and welcome opportunities to grow. 


4.  What one message do you want to give cancer survivors?

I wish I had met someone who could have looked me in the eyes and said, "Terri - this is going to be messy and grueling and awful. You're going to emerge from the trenches of treatment and feel like a shadow of your former self. This disease is going to poke holes in your confidence, challenge you to learn to love a scarred body, and open emotional baggage you thought you had long since packed away. But lean into the discomfort. Lean into the sadness. Cry. Rage. Punch pillows. Because I promise you, on the other side of this marathon, you will find new opportunities that you can't yet imagine. I know this might scare you even more. With new adventures and opportunities come new fears and new uncertainties. But perhaps the words of Rainer Rilke will give you comfort:

You are so young. I want to beg of you, as much as I can, dear sir, to be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”


5.  What's your Well Again?

My Well Again is giving myself permission every single day to reinvent, reimagine, redesign my life. To learn from the mistakes I made the day before and continue to challenge myself to find time - even amidst the intense schedule of building the Fresh Chapter Alliance Foundation - to continue to dream. To lean into more of what brings me joy. To surround myself with a tribe of people who share the big dreaming spirit and who are lit up by life. 

After all, it is only when we feel lit up that we can ignite something in others. 

Click here to learn more about A Fresh Chapter's India Odyssey in March 2016.

Call me #twidiot.

Hey my people, 

You know how they talk about chemo brain?  When you're just a little bit off?  When your windmill is missing a blade?  Yeah, I have that, but chemo's not the culprit.  I had it in kindergarten.  At age 7 I took to eating my egg-on-toast balanced on the back of my hand.  I had a lot of fails with that system, but I guess I wanted more suspense out of breakfast.  In school I once went through fifth period before I realized my skirt was on inside out.  To this day, I can say the wrong thing and be just as surprised as you when it pops out.  It's just part of my makeup, like being left-handed.  (Go #lefthandersday! Oh crap. That was yesterday.) 

When I was a journalist, my editors knew that my stories would be gibberish until draft #3.  I don't mean disorganized.  I mean not in English.  

This is why Twitter worries me.  For you, it's a genius instant bond with the globe.  For me, it's that place where it takes one millisecond to tell the universe that there's a leak in my oil pan.

I learn something every day though.  #restingbitchface #humblebrag #princegeorge

See?  A #twiddiot can up her game.  Once upon a time, even rain was a learning curve. 

My Well Again list: Lin-Manuel Miranda's "Hamilton"

Why is a hiphop-musical composer in a blog about survivorship?  Because artistry like this makes me want to live.  If you love musicals, Lin-Manuel Miranda is a genius.  If you think musicals bite, Lin-Manuel Miranda is still a genius.  In "Hamilton," Miranda sets the story of Founding Father Alexander Hamilton to hiphop.  Just opened on Broadway.  Sold out through the Second Coming.  Not saying I'd kill for a ticket but I'd rough you up pretty good.  

Here's the man, previewing it at the White House back in 2009.

Marianne Williamson talks to Anne about why we get cancer

As a 3x cancer veteran, I hate being lectured by new age fans who preach that we “give ourselves” cancer. Whole Life Times gave me the chance to raise this issue with Marianne Williamson, one of the most respected leaders of new age thought.  I think you’ll be fascinated by what Marianne says on the cancer experience — including her advice on what to tell people who try to impose their opinions on you.  Enjoy, share, and comment....  We want to hear from you!


We're launched!!!

It's official! Well Again is happening! It takes more than medicine to build a great life beyond cancer. That's why we're here-- to help you find your Well Again. We're going to work for you right now. Right this minute.
But we've got to find you first. Nothing is more isolated than a survivor living on beyond cancer.
So please, find us. Like our Well Again Facebook page. Follow us at @annewellagain. Join our list. And remember, we will never EVER share your information. We've been through cancer too. Respect, yo.

Cedars and Staples

Hey my people,

So glad we text with our thumbs, because here I am, with my fingers in a splint. Seems I am capable of impaling my hand with a staple gun. This was no big deal when I did it, except, wow, it's strange to look at your palm and see a staple there. Very solid, too. I had to pull to get it out.
And why the emergency room? Because the finger nearest the tiny puncture wounds started to swell. With a little nagging, I agreed to go to the emergency room, where they plugged me into a Very Serious antibiotic drip.
So at least I wasn't twice-dumb.
And I sure wasn't scared of the hospital. After three bouts of cancer, I feel quite at home at Cedars.
Plus they're classy. Not one person said, A staple gun. Really? You fool.

Rocking the Cactus Castle

Hey, my people,

Here's a bird with vision. See her up there? Staring down the wind, daring anybody to mess with her. I thought she just liked riding this massive cactus in the breeze. Who wouldn't? I'm getting the image of a pirate on a quarterdeck. "Faster, damn me eyes! Put every scrap of canvas on her!" Etc.

Leave it to my pragmatic partner to point out the obvious. "The bird's got a nest in there and she's protecting it." Okay. Still. It's got to be fantastic up in that penthouse of a plant. Those baby birds are going to be hard to please later in life.

We won't be here forever. Not the bird, not her babies. Not me. But just for today, what a view!

Grout Me Out

Hey my people,

Opinions please: Does a cancer diagnosis bring on DIY fever? That's how it's been for me. My temperature registers in the lower end of the spectrum, I admit: When I get a grand idea, like making a little covered hut out in the yard to house all that exercise equipment we never use, It takes all my energy to buy the list of materials. Every label has to be read and, half the time, deciphered with the help of YouTube or Wikipedia. Is it water- or oil-based? Toxic to children and animals? Long-lasting? Quick-drying? Does it require molly bolts? (I am not interested in molly bolts. The term sounds like a Revolutionary-era sexually transmitted disease.)

If you're like me, you spend a lot of time whipsawed between that cancer-survivor urge to take control of your environment and the chemo-brained reality that you are willing to exert yourself only in short bursts and then only on ideas you've already had.

I do get tired of the half-assedness that plagues all my projects. Also, it's new year's resolution time. So when my nephew-in-law, a professional tile guy, explained how to regrout the kitchen counter, I decided to Do It All the Way.

I was at it for three days, digging out all the nasty-greasy old grout in preparation for the fresh batch. Then came the rubber gloves, the cool water--not too much!--the bucket, the stirring, and, in about two minutes, the frenzied race to the finish. The instructions said to ply the tile float at a nice even pace, just ease that grout on into the crevices. Yeah, well. Not the way this stuff was drying. I wound up tearing around the counter at a dead run, raking big globs of black muck out of the bucket and stuffing it into every hole I could see.

It was like finger painting. It was fantastic.

There was collateral damage, it's true. Talk about the fog of war: There is now a thin layer of gray-black grout all over me, the floor, the dog, and the cat.

But I did it. No pile of unused supplies taking up permanent residence in a corner until I forget what they were for. No big swath of countertop left undone, with the promise to resume "next weekend," meaning "never in this lifetime."

No, for once I followed all the way through. That's what I told my nephew.

There was a brief silence on the phone. Then he asked, "You regrouted the whole kitchen?"


Hey my people,

As we unwrap this gift of a new year, I find myself thinking of friends who have crossed over into some territory that I think must make this one look very poor indeed.

You can tell me there's nothing after this life. I don't believe it. I know there's more, because this segment is so nonsensical, it could only be a puzzle piece.

What do my friends know that I don't? What can they see that I can't? Don't get me wrong, I'm not itching to find out right this minute. But when the time comes, I think it's going to be like...skydiving. Hanging onto the plane, clutching grabbing shrieking and then.... OH WOW.

That's what Steve Jobs said as he crossed the threshold, according to his sister, novelist Mona Simpson. Three times: "Oh wow. Oh wow. Oh wow."

My years on the cancer quad haven't given me the power to understand death, but I have come this far: I bet it's the best party ever. For one thing, so many of my friends are there already. Daisy. Ben. Shannon. Allison. Sandy. Steve. Sam. Nancy. Savannah. Brit. They've moved on, but they continue to enrich my world just as surely as if we were having lunch tomorrow. They've taught me that you can be in two places at once--two times infinity, for all I know.

So: blessings to all of us this year. Wherever we are in the great continuum, there's more to come. The altitude is perfect, the moment is right. Open your eyes. Jump.

Lady Lymphedema's Birthday Blog

(ED NOTE: Not my legs. Believe me.)

Hey my people,

Here we are at my birthday, December 22. This is a big one. Actually, as the astute blogger Lisa Bonchek Adams points out, they're all big ones once cancer has entered your life. But this is a flip-the-decade birthday, y'all. This is me getting to say I've somehow lived thirteen years since I was first diagnosed with ovarian cancer. I've had all that time to grow, change, rant, cry, love and learn.

I haven't wanted to complain on this blog, because considering how much life I've saved up, how rich I am in memories, complaining is just bad manners. But just this once, since it's my birthday, please indulge me. 

So I dropped a heavy box on my foot in September. It hurt like hell, but I figured that's what I get for cleaning out the storeroom when it's 95 degrees. Couple days later, I look down and holy crap, my foot and ankle are all swollen. Mrhuuhhh?  

X-rays, orthopedic boots, hot packs; nothing broken, says the podiatrist. Once we've eliminated hairline fractures, he looks at my chart, sees that December 22 birthday approaching, and goes, ah, wink wink, at this age we don't heal as fast as we used to. This was inarguable but also, it turns out, irrelevant.

I found out I had lymphedema only after I started an exercise program at my alma mater, Cedars-Sinai. Unlike the podiatrist, the cancer folks knew what to look for when they saw my by-now-mild swelling. Thanks to their sharp eyes, I'm lucky enough to have caught my problem early.

It still sucks. I'd gone 13 years without pelvic lymph nodes, no problem. Then some idiot, probably me, packed the storeroom and neglected to post avalanche warnings. All it took was one injury, and there's cancer, up in my face yet again, delivering another of those little insults that make it such a pal even after it's in remission.

Now my leg is swathed in bandages out to here, and will remain so for the next several weeks. Then I get fitted for my new style statement, a compression garment. Excuse me, what? Yeah. A compression garment. Like Spanx for your foot, for life. 

On the other hand, behold the power of words. Spanx for your foot. Doesn't sound bad when you write it, does it? Sounds like something you might buy at Macy's to complement your tankini. Maybe my compression garment will make me look svelte. Ten pounds lighter. No cankles here!

Or maybe lymphedema just sucks. Regardless, even if a compression garment is the last birthday present I'd want, it is my birthday. I made it to 60, and I'm celebrating.


Can you whip cancer in 130 minutes?

Today I finally asked the rude question about exercise and cancer. Like, WHY?
I hate exercise, so, keeping in mind that cancer is a gigantic imposition on my life, why should I have to exercise too?

My friend Dr. Asher at Cedars-Sinai patiently explained, and for what felt like the first time, I listened.

Statistics show that for many people, just 130 minutes of exercise per week can decrease the risk of recurrence by 30%.

Let me repeat that in case you just went into shock. Just 130 minutes of exercise, repeated every week, could give you a 30% better shot at thumbing your nose at cancer from now on.

130 minutes. It takes me that long to catch up on Grey's Anatomy. I can get through 130 minutes of anything. If this is even a little bit true, I might -- MIGHT -- be willing to change my ways.

Inspiration and estrogen

Hey my people,
I'm just resurfacing from Rise 2013, a four-day conference with the unbelievably dynamic motivator/ businesswoman/ guru Ellie Drake, along with guest speakers like Jamie Lee Curtis and Valerie Harper and Marianne Williamson -- and about 1200 increasingly enchanted women, including me.
Driving to the LAX Marriott for the closing day, I was so jazzed that I dictated my whole Well Again philosophy into my phone. I practically wept, it was so brilliant. Unfortunately, I discovered today, the phone didn't save it. It was like one of those dreams where you wake up just before the galactic emissary tells you how to achieve world peace.
Tough blow, I have to say. But this much remains clear to me.
In 2014, we'll have Well Again meetups in California. I'll be speaking as well as writing, and I'll be reaching out to contact all of you -- everyone who's living on beyond cancer and wondering when they'll find their posse of people who understand and -- hear this -- who would be friend material anyway, because that's how cool they are.
More fun, less fear. That's how we get Well Again.

The Courage to Be Seen, Part 2

Hey my people,

Here's the second unbelievably cool cancer-fighting viral video I told you about:  "Molly's P.INK Tattoo," which came to me from Click to meet Molly Ortwein, founder of, (P.INK as in "Personal Ink"). After her double mastectomy, Molly elected to adorn her reconstructed breasts with tattoos. Colby Butler, of Unfamous Tattoo in Miami, did the inking on two gorgeous representations of Brazilian pernambuco blossoms, reflecting Molly's love of all things Brazil.  

This story so far is lovely but not groundbreaking, right? Okay, here's the groundbreaking part. Molly has gone on to found -- a nexus that pairs women who want to answer cancer with tattoos with tattoo artists willing to offer their time and talent to help. I hope you'll check out the P.INK Pinterest page. Maybe recommend this idea to somebody you love. 

Brave women like Molly Ortwein and (previous post) Deborah Cohen are confirming what we all instinctively know: This is a momentous time in the wide world of cancer. The big C is losing its power to make us hide and talk in whispers. We're fighting cancer, and we're willing to be seen fighting cancer.

There's a fierceness cancer gives us, and although I bleeping hate the cancer, I love the fierceness. 

Molly is a perfect example. She may cry here and there during this video, but she's not remotely embarrassed about that. She's planning to work those tattoos, honey.  Talking about plans for her next trip to Brazil, she says with a grin: "I am so looking forward to marching my ass around the beach with no top on."


The Courage to Be Seen, Part 1

Hey my people,

You know what? We are fighting back against the soul-killing after-effects of cancer, and we are being seen fighting back. I'm thinking about two viral videos I saw today. Both make me cry, not with sorrow, but with joy.

First came the most delightful, not to mention funky, homemade dance video, staged in the OR to Beyonce's "Get Me Bodied" by an awesome woman named Deborah Cohen and the medical team about to perform her double mastectomy. She termed it a Flash Mob and invited funky souls everywhere to join in. Here's how it went down.


Just five days after her surgery, Deborah's video has been viewed more than 6 million times on YouTube.  Nearly 200,000 people have visited her CaringBridge page, and many have responded to her request to film their own "Get Me Bodied" videos and email them to her. "I picture a healing montage," she writes. "Are you with me?"

You damn betcha!


Happy Early Thanksgiving!

Hey my people,

Last night was hopping at our eccentric homestead in Silverlake, California, where we hosted our second annual Early Thanksgiving party celebrating life beyond cancer.

For the past couple of weeks I've been the leader of a small and increasingly hysterical group of people, united in the effort to make this house look like the kind of environment where you'd want to have a party. My partner and I are writers, meaning we are shy, retiring types, not much given to entertaining because that would involve housework. One Thanksgiving some years back, one of my relatives, seeing that I couldn't locate a single pot, pan, or dish towel in our kitchen, commented: "Do you actually live here?"

My limitations aside, however, this particular party had to happen. Because the first Early Thanksgiving was so wonderful.

The first week of November in 2009, when I was finally, finally done with radiation, chemo, and the works, my friends had the genius idea to throw me a Thanksgiving dinner without waiting for the old-hat normal Turkey Day.

Between the three kinds of pie and the relief to be alive, it was the best party ever. Looking around the table, face-to-face, surrounded by wonderful people, I knew that for me, healing is love. I wanted other cancer veterans to have the feeling I had then.

That's where my idea for Well Again was born. When you've been through the cancer mill, you can't just throw yourself back into life like nothing happened. Life needs to show you a little hospitality.

Believe me, Well Again is not just about sweetness and light. With my friends, the tartness brings the zing. My childhood hero Auntie Mame said, "Life is a banquet, and most poor sons of bitches are starving to death." If that's the criterion, my twisted buddies never miss a meal.

Last year at this time was supposed to be Early Thanksgiving. But on the day of the party, Rita and I got kind of phone call that stops parties in their tracks. Her sister's cancer had taken a turn for the worse. Now was the time to get to the hospital. We actually packed Early Thanksgiving turkey in the car, and it became the main dish for the vigil.

This year, though, our celebration of life was in full swing. There were mountains of food; there was even football. (UCLA versus somebody or other.) The house was full of friends, some of them cancer veterans like me, some just really good at loving people who've had cancer.

(That second group deserves thanks on its own: we've all met people who hear "cancer" and run the other way, but my posse shows up better than I do, because that's how lucky I am.)

To kick off the party last night, we had a traditional rite--yes, already we have a tradition!-- born at the first Early T/G. Everybody made hand turkeys and posted them on my Foamcore of Creativity wall in the living room. The kid-ness of it put everybody in the party zone.

So today was cleanup, and tomorrow I get back to the business of Well Again. Next year, we'll have more people for early Thanksgiving, because more of us will be on the Well Again voyage together. I think there will be many parties, not just one. I don't know the details -- yet. But I will.

Here's our invitation and our challenge, for this Early Thanksgiving and forever: Let's party till we're Well Again!