Celebrations and Adventures

Buen Camino, dear Jessica.

Jessica Jahnke died two nights ago, in Seattle, much too soon. If you've ever read my writing in this space, you know that Jessica was my role model for courage and defiance in the face of cancer. You won't remember -- but I do -- that Jessica sought me out several years ago. She was doing what she loved, traveling in her Nissan pickup. She was cheerful despite the fact that the truck was pretty much all she had left in the world after her cancer returned, her insurance ran out, and her condo foreclosed. 

Jessica had a plan to walk the ancient Camino de Santiago in Spain, where she also had family. She was not deterred by the metastatic tumor pressing on her spine. "The doctors told me that if I fall down, it could end my life," she said. "So I don't fall down." She told me this in the midst of a two-mile walk.

Jessica did find her way to the Camino. By then she was too sick to walk the distance. She went back home to Seattle. True, she was dying, but no way was she losing the battle with cancer. To struggle as Jessica did, with all the joy and heart you possess—that's not losing.

I spent the day with Jessica not long ago. She was just getting the hang of the motorized wheelchair that had been lent to her. She was delighted to be out of bed. Although her right hand was clumsy -- the tumor that had already deadened her legs was now numbing the hand as well -- Jessica made that wheelchair obey.

Without our friends, Jessica and I would not have met again. Phil Todd, chair of our Well Again board and my stalwart friend, bought my airline ticket. Thank you so much, Phil. The extremely capable and kind Seattle-based cameraman Brian Miller volunteered his day and his world-class equipment to help me film Jessica at her best, as she told us the story of her cancer journey. If you are ever filming in Seattle, please hire Brian and pay him double. 

I asked Jessica what she expected to find on the far side of death. That was the only question she turned aside.  "I don't want to say," she told me with an uncharacteristically diffident smile. "I don't want to be disappointed."

Jessica, if there's any justice, the disappointing part of your journey is all done. I see you on a new Camino full of endless sights and sounds and friends at every albergue. On this Camino, you won't fall down. Not ever.

Photo courtesy of Laurie Masover and Monserrat Riu Jover.

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 upworthy.com. Click to meet Molly Ortwein, founder of P.INK.org, (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 P.INK.org -- 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!


Dancing to Kill the Cancer Demon

Hey my people, meet Ananda Shankar Jayant. When she was diagnosed with breast cancer, she called on her mastery of Indian classical dance to mobilize the goddess Durga to conquer her cancer.  Since Durga kills demons, the analogy could not be better. Here, Ananda tells -- no, shows -- her audience at TED how she becomes Durga, riding the tiger into battle and emerging victorious.

Watching Ananda's dance unfold, I asked myself:  Who is my all-powerful cancer-conquering deity? I know I manifest someone because I feel myself breathing in courage in the parking lot of the cancer center.  I can feel myself putting on armor as I step inside. Where's that armor coming from?

That's my question for all of you, my friends who've walked into a diagnosis or a date for chemo: Who's your all-powerful cancer-conquering deity?  Who do you become when you walk off the elevator and into the cancer center?  Tell us and show someone else how it's done!  


Seamus Friday: Hollywood High

Hey, my people, Seamus thought you might get a kick out of looking down on L.A. from the Griffith Park Observatory.  He does.  

Of course Seamus gets a kick out of everything.  This time, I was the one who needed to get out and above. My six-month checkup was days away.  I needed to remember that the world is bigger than Cancerville.  

Proportions change up here. The Hollywood Sign is twice the size it's supposed to be; the hikers march along like ants in sun hats.  California's brown hills can seem desolate in photographs.  Don't believe it. They're full of life.  

As it happens, the checkup went fine.  Seamus and I get another six months to ramble.  Who knows where we might climb?

Jessica is on the road!

My friend Jessica Jahnke is one of the baddest cancer heroes ever.  Here's how a longtime friend describes her:

"I met Jessica in 1979, we worked together in a disco, 'cause we’re that old. Still being here to be ‘that old’ is a blessing. We are both cancer survivors.

"Jessica was one of the most interesting people I had met back in 1979. She was born in Silverlake, CA, and her mom moved her to Barcelona, Spain, when she was 6, going on 7. Jessica has lived in Spain, Egypt, England, New York State, California, Vermont and Washington. What an incredible resume… Jess is a fun and adventurous woman, with a great sense of humor and zest for life! Sometimes I feel like she doesn’t fully understand how remarkable her life is, she is an amazing woman. She feels things deeply, so when you are loved by her, you are loved. I am honored to call her family. I love her bunches!! Always and forever."

--Janice Wheelock

Pictured above at the Oregon Country Fair with her beloved Nissan truck and her Burro camper, Jessica has been telling Stage IV where to get off.  Despite constant pain, she made the drive from Seattle to volunteer at the Fair, just as she has for the past 20 summers.  Further complications prevented Jessica from driving coast to coast.  But not before she sent us pictures of this field of flowers or these sociable geese.  And just because she's stopped driving, doesn't mean she's stopped moving. Next on Jessica's list is a flight to Barcelona, her childhood home.  From there, if she can, she'll join the amazing walking pilgrimage, the Camino de Santiago de Compostela.  

Who's going with her? 


When the curse of cancer becomes a blessing

I just experienced what I hope will be my last chemotherapy treatment for a long, long time. (Forever would be even better.)  Some cancers creep up slowly; others pounce.  Mine swept in like a hungry tiger while I was looking the other way, bemused by commonplace things like thinning hair, loss of memory and just generally growing older. 

Chemo resolved all those complaints without so much as an apology.  It took ALL my hair, left me in a brain fog that made me drop everything I pick up, and it gave me the sudden desire to live to become a little old lady! Funny how that works.

But what has been most shocking was finding that a life threatening illness can be the catalyst for more blessings than you can ever imagine. One of the most serendipitous moments I’ve experienced was last weekend when my community celebrated its annual Relay for Life.  People of all ages came out to honor their loved ones who have died of cancer and to show support for those who are surviving and fighting the disease. 

During the opening “walk of survivors,” I stumbled around the track in awe that perfect strangers would come out on a rainy blustery Friday evening to cheer on a lot of people they may not even know.  I had participated before, but never with such a personal stake in the value of the event which annually raises millions of dollars to fight cancer.  My compliments and appreciation to my friends, Brian and Diane, and all the volunteers and workers from the American Cancer Society who spent months recruiting teams and planning a flawless event.

At dawn today, I sat out on my back porch and breathed in the combined fragrance of maturing mint and rosemary while making a list of all the good things that have occurred as a direct result of illness.  I won’t go into all the minor details - like losing unwanted pounds without a diet, getting a great head of hair (which I hang on the bedpost over night), and  falling in love with those heretofore dreaded green vegetables. The latter is thanks to Margaret Ann Wood, a restaurateur and longtime friend, who introduced me to Goya seasonings which can make the lowly canned green bean taste like the nectar of the Gods. 

The Big C also gave me a bizarre sense of humor.  I still chuckle at the look on that truck driver’s face when I was pumping gas during high winds which blew my wig right off my head and carried it across the parking lot.  He stared in dismay, probably confused by the smiley face a friend had drawn with magic marker on the BACK of my head.  I also got a kick out of the long black “Cher” wig my son sent me as a joke.  One morning I went door to door pretending to be an encyclopedia salesperson and not one neighbor recognized me.  Come on people, who sells encyclopedias these days?  

The greatest gift has been the deeper relationships formed with my family and friends who I often took for granted; the absolutely religious experience of feeling good again after being under the weather;  learning not to judge others who may be suffering from their own set of stressors; and the realization that material things will never provide lasting fulfillment.  That lesson was way overdue, but I’m a slow learner and like they say, it takes what it takes.

Someone once said that the hardest arithmetic to master is that which enables us to count our blessings, but when we do, they seem to multiply.  Oh, and here’s something else to look forward to.  I heard mosquitoes will take one bite out of a chemo patient and fly off to wash their mouths out with soap, spitting all the way.  Ah, Ha! 

Emily Jones is a retired journalist who edits a blog site for bouncing baby boomers who are entering retirement.  She was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in November, 2012.  Check out her blog at deludeddiva.com.


Sheep dreams, Seamus...

Hey my people,
Seamus and I duet on his sheep toy. He gets it in his jaws and shoves it against my knee till it squeaks. Then I answer--reach in on either side of his jaws, squeak the toy, draw back, and don't get chomped. Then he squeaks, then I squeak, and so on.
Might sound dull, but what with the teeth, it gets pretty lively.
Not till this week did I realize that Seamus was also using his sheep as a pillow. Does this count as multitasking?

Dancing for Roger Ebert

Hey my people,

Roger Ebert is my hero not just because he was so mighty in the face of cancer. I loved him because as a writer he ENGAGED with what came his way--love, art, death, and everything between. As a critic, Ebert was just what I hope to be, exacting but generous too. If he hated a film, he said so; but he also wished the filmmaker better luck next time. When it came to cancer, Ebert was the finest joycatcher I ever saw. Cancer took his voice; he re-created it. Cancer took his jaw. He kept his smile.

Hey Roger. Thanks for everything. Let's dance.

Cancer, the Mystery. We, the initiates.

Hey my people,

When you run into friends after you've been to Cancerville, they smile and hug you, but there's a certain holding back. Right? A certain awkward silence that was never there before. You can read their minds, although you don't want to. They're thinking: Now that you're back from the dead, who are you?

In a world where cancer is rarely a death trip, that seems really unfair. Like, I've just been through hell and now I have to comfort YOU?

Well, yeah. You do. Cancer is a Mystery, the ancient kind, with a capital M. It's an initiation into a certain kind of priesthood. People fear you afterward, or put you on a pedestal, or get antsy and say dumb things and spill coffee in your lap. That's just how it is. We're different.

After cancer, we'll cook dinner and watch TV and walk the dog. But we'll never be the same.

The first time I had cancer, I wanted to forget it ever happened. The second time, I was so angry, I wanted to rip the world in two. The third time, though, I opened my eyes and saw that I'm in the world's best company. We've been tested, you and I. We've seen the Mystery, and if we can't talk about it to those who stayed behind, is that really so surprising?

Hey my people: That's how I start my posts because that's how I feel about you. If that seems presumptuous—like, if you'd rather be anywhere but in this club—I understand. But I want to be here if you pass this way again. You can't go BACK home after cancer. But you can live to build a new home up ahead. I'm here to help you find it.

My Dinner with Fran Drescher and Friends

Hey my people,
Talk about your holiday cheer! This week I dined under the stars with the one and only Fran Drescher and her close-knit creative family at TV Land's "Happily Divorced."
How'd I get invited? The famed comedienne from Queens is also a committed cancer activist who graciously gave me a listen about Well Again. Fran answered her own cancer diagnosis with her bestselling book "Cancer, Schmancer." After that, she created the Cancer, Schmancer Foundation, which continues to advocate for better healthcare, stronger awareness of environmental carcinogens, and above all, early detection. (Check it out at cancerschmancer.org.)

Fran stands out among cancer heroes because she can share serious information with a laugh--in her case, a laugh that deserves its own star on the walk of fame.

In person, the laugh and the lady are for real. Like Lucille Ball before her, Fran Drescher is a pro's pro who not only stars in "Happily Divorced" but also writes and executive produces it. "TV's very fast," Fran pointed out. "If you're not playing pretty close to yourself, you're sunk."

After our conversation came dinner, hosted by Fran's ex-husband and forever creative partner, Peter Marc Jacobson. The long table on his outdoor terrace glittered with glassware and candles. Healthy veggie dishes kept coming. Short ribs too. And chocolate. I faced Peter's blue-lit pool; behind me were the lights of Hollywood far below.

The conversation was even more fun than the view. I sat next to cast members Robert Walden, a straight-ahead nice guy who plays Fran's dad; and Tichina Arnold, Fran's onscreen best friend, who enlightened me about her own cause: the fight against lupus, which affects three out of five African-American women. Faced with Tichina, I'd say lupus hasn't got a chance.

And then there was Rita Moreno. One of my personal goddesses -- if you haven't seen her in "West Side Story," don't speak to me until you have -- Rita plays Fran's mom on "Happily Divorced." At 65, Rita is more beautiful than ever.  At least that's what I was thinking until Fran announced that tonight was Rita's birthday. Her 81st birthday

I had to laugh at life's endless unpredictability. When I was first diagnosed and the doctors were giving me 50/50 odds, did they imagine that 11 years later I'd be eating coconut cake with Rita Moreno?  Not a chance.  So if you're reading this, hold tight to life. Because even if it kicks you today, tomorrow it will throw you all the joy you can catch. 

Meet Jessica: Cancer Road Warrior

"If I fall down, it could kill me, so I don't fall down," Jessica told me -- as we set out on a two-mile walk. Like me, Jessica is a three-time cancer vet. Unlike me, she has complications that threaten her spine.
Jessica's backbone, however, is rock solid. Cancer ended her job, sapped her savings and forced her out of her home, but she's not bemoaning her losses. She and her pickup truck are hitting the road to see America.
I had the privilege of meeting Jessica when she came through LA. To me, she embodies what Well Again is all about. Cancer has done rotten things to her. She's responding by doing things she's always wanted. Jessica's filling her eyes with new sights and her heart with new memories. She's not falling down. She's embracing the adventure.

If you appreciate Jessica's attitude, then how about sending her a shoutout here on the Well Again blog? Better yet, tell Jessica what town or landmark in America you'd most love for her to see.  

On Black Friday, Joycatching means Bargain-snatching

Hey my people, fierce shopping is part of getting Well Again. They tell us to exercise, right? If the Black Friday rush ain't exercise, I don't know what is. So if you're out today in Macy's, Target, Best Buy etc, I say: Take no prisoners! If you survived chemo, you're definitely strong enough to chase down a flat screen TV. When you get home, tell us: how did it go? Send pix so we can gloat with you! Extra points if you're still bald and you leveraged the sympathy factor to get the last XBox bundle.


Joycatcher Moment: Red Leaves, Green Okra

Hey my people,
Cancer taught me to be a joycatcher, and even though it's hard to explain your own joy to anybody else, I keep trying. Because joycatching is helping to keep me here, and I think it could help you too.
This weekend I drove to a memorial service. Yes, it was for a friend who'd died of cancer, although nobody in his right mind would say she lost her battle etc etc. That woman had more fight in her than the Crips, the Bloods, the Marines, and the World Wrestling Federation. I think she just got tired and moved on.
Afterward we found ourselves walking down a sunny street where red leaves danced, ending their journeys in style. We ate Burmese food, our first ever -- new tastes and smells and reasons to celebrate. Life was good. As it always is.

Happy Dia de los Muertos! Because why not?

Hey my people, here in L.A., it's not just Halloween we're all getting ready for. No, in this territory that once was Mexico, we're all about the Day of the Dead. This isn't maudlin and it isn't weird. It's Halloween with the mystery left in. It's a time to remember all the ones we love, and by remember, I mean party. The Dia de los Muertos tradition centers on the creation of figurines that can be scary or endearing, like this esquelato (skeleton) made by kids at a local elementary school in tribute to Michael Jackson. In a blog about life beyond cancer, why am I bringing up such a dicey thing as, you know, death? Because it's good to remember that whenever death comes, it might very well be a party. Why not?

Joycatcher Moment: Reggie Watts rocks your molecules

Hey my people, here's my joycatcher moment for today. Musician-poet Reggie Watts is OFF THE CHAIN at TED Talks. It's not just his mad musical skills: At one point, he gestures to his body and observes in wonder, "You have the power to move this mass of molecules AT WILL." So true, Reggie. Why do we worry there are no miracles out there for us? We're miracles already.

What are your joycatcher moments? We want to know!

Warmest regards, Anne

So much more!

I've been dreaming up Well Again in my own mind for two years. I dreamed how great it would be to connect with even a few cancer vets out here in Survivorworld. After only two days of hearing your generous responses on our Contact page, I realize I had no clue how fantastic you are. You're SO MUCH MORE amazing than "civilians" know.
It's not just that you have courage. People are forever telling me how courageous I am, which is sort of silly in a well-meaning way.  (What am I going to do, NOT run out of the burning building? Maybe you relate.) Our courage is not what people think. It's more like a beautiful defiance we learn as we're buffeted around between recurrence and the fear of remission. What I'm saying is, this is not well understood and it's nobody's fault, but people congratulate us for the wrong stuff.
So here we are with all these insights going on (yeah, a bunch we didn't ask for, but still). And there's nobody to tell!

I say we deserve more!

And from your messages, so do you. Well Again is going to be adding a lot of cool functions, including some you may never have considered. But that's yet to come, and I want to build our community right now.  So I hope you'll think about working with what we've got at this moment. Let us get to know you! 

You're seeing some of my favorite adventures in our Gallery; please post your own pix and stories at Well Again on Facebook.

And SEND ME COMMENTS on this blog! Y'all are way more interesting than anybody knows. Talk it on up, people! Whatever you care to share will be amazing. I can't wait. More next time.

Warmest regards,