Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Chemo—50% Done!

Yesterday I had my second chemo infusion, so I am officially halfway done with this phase of treatment! Yay!

The side effects so far haven't been as bad as last time, although I'm kind of waiting for the other shoe to drop. The 72-hour point seems to be the nadir, so I'm hoping it's not too rough in a couple days.

However, we have amazing family and friends who are taking the kids to do wonderful activities all week long, and I'm thrilled they're getting to spend so much time with their cousins from all across the country. Also, Bryce is home with me all week so I'm well cared for!

There's 5 nights of Umphrey's webcasts starting tonight, and lots of football and hockey on tv, so we're looking forward to hunkering down and getting through the week as well as possible. I hope you all have a very safe and happy New Year!

Monday, December 15, 2014

Spring is Coming

It's not even Christmas, there's no snow on the ground, but I know spring will be here because I've already received my first 2015 seed catalog! And what a beauty it is...Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds. This year's is just as lovely as every year.

Flowers made of colorful seeds on a background of grains that look so tactile I just want to run my hands through them and feel each grain fall around my fingers. I'm also happy they've moved to an 8-1/2" x 11" catalog size in the last couple years. Previously they used something closer to 11" x 14" and it was kind of unwieldy.

I've been a Baker Creek customer for a few years now, and my favorite offering of theirs is lettuce. Lettuce is one of my most-loved crops to grow and consume, and their selection covers every type: romaine, leaf, butterhead, oak leaf, you name it. Every year I grow about five varieties, and I make a point to try a couple new types each year while keeping a few stalwarts in the line-up.

Tom Thumb, sort of washed post-harvest
Rouge D'Hiver has been my go-to romaine, and Tom Thumb, a butterhead type, is possibly my all-time favorite. Outredgeous was a new addition this year and looks set to repeat its role in my garden this spring. I'm already eying Pablo and Tennis Ball as potential candidates this year. I will change my mind at least 400 times before actually placing my order later this winter.

Baker Creek offers a lot more than lettuce, however; most of their vegetable, herb, and flower offerings are quite comprehensive. I encourage you to check out their website and even request a catalog if you like paging through beautiful plant pictures like I do.

I have to say, however, I'm not as adamant about GMO-free foods as these folks. I understand where they're coming from, but I'm not about to tell a Bangladeshi farmer that it's too bad if her kids go blind because rice modified with vitamin A is bad. It's not bad, and keeping a scientific advance such as this from developing countries is Western hubris. Modifying seeds for yield, disease and pest resistance, drought resistance, and the like is going to keep a planet of 7 billion fed, like it or not. Not to mention, humans have been genetically modifying plants since the invention of agriculture. Our ancestors selected the cereal plants that had the largest grains and the particular individuals that held onto those grains (aka, seeds) longer instead of dispersing them quickly from the seed head. Just because we're doing it on a much more technologically advanced scale doesn't automatically make it bad.

That being said, Roundup Ready corn is terrible. Any genetic modifications that allow people to dump ever more chemicals on our food supply and land and in our water is both dangerous and wrong. Also, biodiversity is extremely important. We don't know what plant traits we'll need in a changing climate; therefore we need to keep as many genes in the mix as possible. Pests and diseases can and will evolve to feed on crops that have been bred for resistance—it's unavoidable, and it's just another reason why we need variety in the gene pool of our plant life. Biodiversity is definitely under threat every day, so people like the Gettles, who own Baker Creek, are doing a valuable service to society by keeping rare and different plants alive and well for us to grow.

As usual, I don't see this issue in black and white. Organic practices, such as integrated pest management, the use of compost, etc., are vital to preserve any amount of healthy land that can grow food. I myself use strictly organic practices in my own gardens, both the vegetable and ornamental parts. An article in the October 2014 issue of National Geographic stated it well: "It's not choosing one type of knowledge—low-tech versus high-tech, organic versus GM—once and for all. There's more than one way to stop a whitefly" (Folger 54). (The author is referring to a virus-carrying pest that is destroying cassava crops in East Africa.)

There's a vast gray area that partisans on both sides forget or ignore, and it's important that we have mature conversations about it. On a lighter note, if you're interested in trying different sorts of vegetables, herbs, and flowers, Baker Creek is a source I can solidly recommend. Germination rates are good and I've never been disappointed in the plants (only the weather, conditions, and neglect that are not attributable to the seeds). And reading this catalog reminds me seed-starting season—and the outdoor gardening season—are really just a few months away.

Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day—December 2014

Since it's the middle of December, there is, unsurprisingly, nothing blooming in my Chicago-area zone 5 garden. However, indoors I have this lovely flower arrangement sent by a family friend:

It's full of pink lilies, white roses, what I think are some dianthus-type flowers, and plenty of greenery.

I also received a plant basket from family wishing me well during treatment, and it's a Christmas classic:

Bright red poinsettias, variegated ivy, and a Christmas cactus that was blooming...something I've never managed with my own houseplant! (Of course the bloom was spent before today, but I swear it was bright pink!)

The ivy and Christmas cactus will join my collection of houseplants after the poinsettia is done for. Thank you everyone for these lovely plant gifts!

To see what's blooming around the world, visit Carol at May Dreams Gardens, our host of Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Dominican Holidaze Recap

Well, now that the immediate effects of the chemo infusion are wearing off, I wanted to share some pictures and recap of our amazing trip to Dominican Holidaze! (For those of you not familiar with this festival, yes it is actually spelled that way; no, I have not stopped caring about my grammar.)

The resort was beautiful! Multiple pools (with swim-up bars), extremely clean, and our room was spacious. Plus it had a jacuzzi on the balcony, which did not suck, and it was very close to the stage. So, for a few sets we just hung out there and heard everything perfectly!

Here's the view from our balcony, the one day that it rained for a while:

We spent the majority of our time relaxing by one of the two large pools. By Thursday they were having DJ sets at one of them, and unsurprisingly Bryce and I migrated to the DJ-free pool for the remaining days. One of the best parts was that at no time did we ever feel crowded. There were always plenty of chairs in the sun, or thatched umbrellas for shade, so we never lacked a great seat.

Drinks were copious, and it was one of the rare times we branched out from beer (you kind of have to in the Caribbean, right?) The food was mostly disappointing, but at an all-inclusive resort that just seems to be the trend. We eventually figured out what was best and where, and we worked with that.

Overall we were extremely lazy, not leaving the resort once. The company managing the festival offered all sorts of excursions and activities that sounded like lots of fun (Baggo tournament! Catamaran trip! Tennis lessons!). But once we were in relaxation mode we didn't come out of it, and honestly it's fine. When If we go back, we'll be more motivated to try things, perhaps!

The beach was wonderful too...that blue-green Caribbean water we've always wanted to see. It was very windy almost the whole time, so the waves were actually rough. We didn't spend a lot of time in the water, but there was ample seating in the sun and shade all over the beach. We probably spent half our ocean time having our feet lapped by waves as we stood watching the shows.
Bryce in the ocean!

Which of course brings us to the other key part of the experience: the music. (Disclaimer for family and friends not interested in Umphrey's: feel free to skip to the end.)
A look from the resort to the stage

Overall the shows were very good, but no crazy bust-outs or incredible antics. Everyone was just enjoying be on a lovely beach, and UM was playing with relaxed precision. The first night, the Wappy Sprayberry had an extremely unusual placement (coming as the second song of the first set, after the intro music), and it included a Footsteps tease (Pearl Jam deep cut). That was possibly the highlight of the show for me, but honestly it had tight jams throughout. The tease of How Many More Times was fun, as always, and the All in Time was very solid, and as many of you know, having seen that song so often it takes a lot for me to say that!

The second night had a great Stewart in the 2x2, which itself fell abruptly out of Plunger, which went unfinished. I never get tired of hearing Bad Friday, and I have to admit both the Hurt Bird Bath and Higgins in the second set had strong jams (although obviously the song selection was not ideal for me).

The third show they had the early set, and they were definitely feeling loose and having fun. I'm so glad Similar Skin is finally getting taken out for a walk, and the jam didn't disappoint. No Diablo was cute because Jake's son, the inspiration for the song, was in the audience dancing along to it. I loved the next run of songs (Educated Guess, Sweetness, Partyin' Peeps); however, Bryce and I got punked out of FF for the second time in six months! Look, I love Kinky Reggae as much as the next guy, but we've been chasing FF for around 10 years, and both at Indianapolis this July and at Holidaze what sounded exactly like the start of FF seamlessly morphed into the Bob Marley classic. I'm not complaining...I'm just sayin', sheesh guys! For full setlists, see All Things Umphrey's.

But again, we were never crowded. I unfortunately have no good pictures from the shows to really demonstrate how close we were, but we spent most of our time hanging out next to palm trees about 10 feet from the stage. Until we wandered to dip our toes in the water and look at the moon, and then come right back. It was the complete opposite of a usual set-up and situation! Here are my feeble attempts at show pictures:
Our typical spot, in relation to the stage (palm tree not pictured)
You put the rum in the coconut...
It was so nice, we made it through an entire STS9 show for the first time ever (Wednesday), and we even watched a little bit of the Disco Biscuits from this spot on Saturday. Servers wandered through the crowd with beers for the taking, or else we waltzed right up to the bars for something different, all with little to no lines!

All in all, it was a fantastic trip and I'm so glad that we were able to do this! Obviously with all the stress going on, we really needed a true break, and the fact that we finally got to celebrate our honeymoon, nearly 10 years later, is of great importance to me and Bryce! I want to thank everyone who made it possible (Mom, Patty, Kari, Rhys, I'm looking at you!).

Hope to see you soon!!

Sunday, November 30, 2014

The Big Reveal

Here is what I looked like this past Friday, November 28th, 2014:

Me & Bryce at Trey show, Aragon Ballroom
And here is what I looked like the very next day...
Notice anything different? That's right, for the first time in 18 years, I have short hair! Here's another angle:
And the back:

In anticipation of losing my hair, I cut it so we could start adjusting to seeing it short. But it's not going to waste. I'm donating this much to Locks of Love, which makes wigs for children with cancer.
11 inches!

My friends Krysten and Erin were there providing moral support during the haircut...thanks again ladies!! Then Beth and Kristi joined us for lunch and drinks to celebrate my new look and toast to a healthy future. Hugs to you all!

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Bizarro Pregnancy

Going through cancer treatment is a lot like being pregnant, except that everything is turned on its head—bizarro pregnancy, if you will. How so? Let me count the ways:

LIKE PREGNANCY, everyone is focused on something inside of me.

I as an individual cease to be the protagonist of my own life, and everything revolves around the thing inside of my body.

BUT, instead of this growth inside of me being awaited and celebrated, it is feared and loathed, a thing to be gotten rid of and destroyed instead of a thing to be welcomed and cherished.

LIKE PREGNANCY, I am in doctors' offices all the time.

BUT, instead of receiving smiles, knowing glances, and perhaps even a look of envy at my swollen belly, I am looked upon with pity and surprise. I am no longer surrounded in the waiting room by women in my age group; I am always the youngest person there. And when the elderly are pitying you, you know something is seriously wrong.

LIKE PREGNANCY, people feel they have license to tell you anything and everything about their experience or the experience of anyone they have ever known, whether you want their input or not. In this area, there is actually little difference between pregnancy and cancer treatment. The degree of scientific backing for peoples' suggestions is exceedingly low in both situations; unverified internet information, old wives' tales, and personal experience (which by its nature is unique to every individual) suddenly become medical fact in the mind of the person talking to you. They undoubtedly know what you must/shouldn't/can't/had better do.

BUT, the content is of course different. Instead of "Oh, you're carrying high so it must be a girl," the prognosis is instead something like "Keep you body alkaline!" Or was it acidic? I can't remember now what the woman at the spa said when I hadn't asked for her advice...and besides, don't our bodies maintain a necessary pH level that isn't impacted by short-term changes to the hydrochloric acid in our stomachs? Soooo....

LIKE PREGNANCY, I am taking about six months off of work. And the entire ordeal will likely be 9-12 months.

BUT, there is nothing cute and cuddly at the end that I can walk around the office with.

What I hope for most is this:
LIKE PREGNANCY, cancer treatment will last for a defined amount of time and then end. Be over. There will be permanent, lasting changes—such is the nature of living in a body. And they will be unpredictable and personalized, a reminder that your body has gone through a significant challenge. But over time those changes become a part of who you are; they don't preclude feeling or looking good, or being normal.

BUT, it is a phase to be endured, and reaching that end calls for a drink.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Getting a Second Opinion

Today we met with Dr. William Gradishar at Northwestern Memorial to get a second opinion on my course of treatment. By all accounts, he's the leading breast cancer specialist in the Chicago area and one of the top breast oncologists in the nation (just check out this publications list). My oncologist recommended I see him simply because my case is such a borderline situation. So it isn't that I don't trust or agree with my oncologist; he's smart enough to recognize the value of additional input and referred me to bigwig in the field (part of why I like this guy).

Anyway, Dr. Gradishar agreed with our treatment plan and said he would recommend the exact same thing: chemo with a 4-round course of TC, radiation, and Tamoxifen (hormone therapy since the tumor was hormone responsive). This was very reassuring, obviously! On the one hand, it's good to hear from the top expert in your particular health issue that he/she would do the same thing you're planning. It's also nice to not have the waters muddied, so to speak, by that person recommending something else or casting doubt on the course of treatment. All in all, I was hoping for confirmation from this meeting, and that's exactly what I got!

Another bright spot was that the word "cured" was used in the conversation, and it's a relief just to hear it. According to the doctor, for all intents and purposes I am "cured" right now since the tumor was removed cleanly and entirely, and my lymph nodes were negative. Of course, systemic treatment is still crucial to prevent any microscopic cells anywhere in the body from growing, but he said I'm at "the good end" of the scale, and this is likely "a bump in the road." Always a nice thing to hear!

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Cancer Update!

OK, so this is a way for me to keep everyone up to date on the latest cancer news. Please feel free to comment (I get notifications), but if you'd rather text, call, send a carrier pigeon, whatever, that's fine too. My apologies to those of you who know some/all of this info...skip whatever you already know!

Where things stand right now: I am done with surgery and will be starting chemotherapy the second week of December. My lumpectomy was a success, they biopsied three lymph nodes, which were all negative for cancer cells, and radiation will come later on. Many of you know I was on the fence about chemo, but in light of my latest test results I feel it's safest to just do it.

What changed? Well, my Oncotype score was "intermediate" risk for recurrence, but very close to the "low" risk part of the scale. Needless to say, it was inconclusive. So my oncologist ordered a MammaPrint test, which is a more comprehensive test of genes from the tumor tissue. That test only has "high" and "low" risk of recurrence. My results were high-risk, but just on the line between low and high. Literally. On the line.
My surgeon's response: "You've gotta be kidding me."

Unfortunately these results are rather inconclusive too. However, if that high-risk categorization is accurate (and the testing company itself says it's got >10%  chance of being wrong), then I would benefit notably from chemotherapy. Basically chemo will substantially help prevent cancer cells from recurring in another organ. Of course, the cancer could still pop up in another organ even with chemo, but the treatment will lower that risk in a numerically significant way.

So, I'm going to suck it up and do a chemo regimen for three months. I'm concerned that if it recurred in my liver, kidneys, what have you, in a few years and I hadn't done chemo now, I wouldn't be able to live with myself. I feel I need to do everything I can to beat this NOW and ensure my best chances for long-term survival. If it does come back in a different organ in a few years, at least I'll know that I did all I could. I'll get four infusions of two chemo drugs (cytoxan and taxotere for those of you keeping score at home), on a three-week cycle. This is set to begin 12/8, with the last one around mid-February.

Once I've had a few weeks to recover from that, I'll start radiation. What is the point of that, you ask? Radiation is to kill any latent cancer cells in the breast tissue itself. Since I didn't have a mastectomy we need to blast the shit out of the breast with radiation. That will be about two months but less intense side effects than chemo (i.e., a bad sunburn and fatigue). In total, this crap is going to be about six months.

On the bright side! Bryce and I are taking a much-needed, much-deserved vacation to the Dominican Republic to celebrate our 10-year wedding anniversary! We'll be spending five days at an all-inclusive resort where Umphrey's McGee is playing a music festival exclusively for resort guests. We've been planning this for months and are so relieved that the cancer didn't ruin the trip (it seemed that it would at a couple points). Then I have my first chemo infusion less than 12 hours after we're back.

You may wonder how I'm handling things, and that answer changes hour to hour. I feel satisfied with my choice to have a lumpectomy and radiation (the survival rate for women choosing that option is exactly the same as it is for women who choose a mastectomy). If a breast tumor comes back, mastectomy is still a tool in the toolbox. I am at peace with the decision to do chemotherapy. I'm terrified, angry, saddened, and all those other things that come with a cancer diagnosis. I'm grateful I have amazing doctors and a good prognosis. I'm relieved I have quality health insurance. I am paranoid it will come back. I am human.

What's next? We're meeting with another oncologist on Monday to get a second opinion. I doubt he's going to say much of anything different, given the latest test results, but he's a breast cancer specialist and I'm looking forward to getting confirmation that I'm taking the right path, or to hear of some amazing new study that could brighten my outlook. I'll post again with an update from that meeting...stay tuned!

Monday, October 20, 2014

Fall Clean-up: The Annual Debate

I am of the gardening school of thought that advocates leaving spent perennial foliage through the winter and cutting it back in the early spring. There are number of reasons for this—providing food and shelter for birds and other wildlife, maintaining some color in the garden once flowers are done blooming, having a landing place for snowflakes as well as brown matter to contrast with those snowflakes, in the hope of achieving that elusive "winter interest" in the garden, etc.

Joe-Pye weed (Eupatorium maculatum) seedheads stand 6' tall...when dusted in snow they exemplify "winter interest"
Personally, I have rarely seen birds eating the seeds of my spent plants, although in late summer the goldfinches were feasting on purple hyssop seeds. But I also get the sense that old foliage protects plants through the winter, maybe helping to prevent frost heave and shielding the plant from freeze/thaw cycles. I don't know, it's just a hunch.
'Purple Emperor' sedums with prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis) photobombing

However, all those good reasons/intentions do not supersede the reality of dealing with straight-up ugliness in my garden. Essentially, if spent foliage just looks awful, I'm getting rid of it in the fall. Yes, it will all look awful by February, but if it's sad and dilapidated in October there's no chance I want to keep looking at it as it gets soaked, frozen, and increasingly beat down by winter.
Purple hyssop (Agastache foeniculum) with vine-whose-name-I-can't-remember look good in fall and so get to stay

So today I cut back some barren sticks that used to be purple hyssop (I think the finches were done with them, guessing by the looks of them), some flopping stems of brown-eyed susans, and nameless hostas. 'Halcyon', 'Touch of Class' and 'June' all look good, or at least they're on the spectrum between not terrible and still got it. The nameless ones were riddled with holes and yellowing, but not in a good-festive-fallish way. They were feeding nothing but any slugs still lurking around.

'Halcyon' still hanging in there

Am I prioritizing good looks over ecological utility? Maybe so, but overall there are still plenty of food sources, shelter materials, root protectors, etc., still left in my garden. Plus, is it really a bad think to cut back monarda and peony foliage swamped with powdery mildew? Doubtful. Mildew will always be in the soil here, but letting more knowingly incubate under the fall blanket of leaves seems unwise. It's a debate each year about what stays and what goes!
Zizia aurea (left) and Coreopsis tripteris (right)

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Garden Blogger's Bloom Day—October 2014

Forgive me garden, for I have sinned. It has been two years since my last blog post.

Garden Blogger's Bloom Day seemed like an auspicious day to get back to it, so here I am! Although admittedly there isn't much still in bloom. However...

Aster shortii
These short's asters are making a hesitant comeback after being voraciously mowed down by rabbits (and likely other animals) during a drought a few years ago. I'm not sure what made them so appealing, but their wholesale destruction at the time led me to believe they were done for. But, like so many garden surprises, a few seeds or runners must have survived because they've been shyly appearing the last two years. Much smaller than before, they hide amongst the spent plants and the fence in this prairie border as if to say, "Are the rabbits gone yet?" (Spoiler: they're not gone, they've multiplied but seem to have plenty of other food sources.)

I'm relieved and happy to have these late-season blooms with their cool blue-violet color back. With all the rain we've had the last two years, it's hard to imagine a time when conditions were so dry that animals needed to devour any and all stems and leaves that might be holding moisture.

Solidago ulmifolia
 A few elm-leaved goldenrods are still blooming. I'm a huge fan of these plants because they flower profusely in dry shade, but I would have to warn you that they are aggressive, bordering on invasive. For me that's no problem because the dry clay in shade kills almost everything I try to grow, or at least causes it to grow weakly, so if a plant can colonize in those conditions, be my guest!
Every one of those little yellow florets becomes a puffball of seeds

And indeed, they've spread to become the major feature in the dry shady section of my front border. For those who would prefer to check their spread, deadhead the plumes as they go to seed. I'm pretty sure the prodigious seeds production is what allows these plants to spread so extensively.

Ruellia humilis
Speaking of seedheads, check out these wild petunias that have gone to seed! No they're not a bloom technically, but I had never seen these go to seed before and it's delightful, reminiscent of another low-growing prairie favorite of mine, Prairie Smoke (Geum triflorum).

And for good measure, here's some colorful foliage of Solomon's seal:
Polygonatum oderatum

While also not a bloom, these beautiful yellowing leaves capture where the garden is at right now, in mid-October. Happy Bloom Day!

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