Surviving Breast Cancer: More Reading, Listening and Sharing

Breast cancer re-aligns your priorities. The importance of family, friends and time to be with them and do things you enjoy become paramount.

I was glad of the opportunity to re-read Bill Bryson’s “Made in America” The book is reviewed here: https://bookreviewstoday.wordpress.com/2013/04/05/made-in-america-by-bill-bryson/. The text is an entertaining compendium of possible and less possible word origins. Does “okay” come from Martin Van Buren’s nickname, Old Kinderhook? Or from the fact that Andrew Jackson was reported to write “oll korrect”? Or is it from the Greek ollakalla(all good)? Bryson offers a cogent discussion of sexism in the language, and there’s a lot of orthography, etymology, and toponymy. But this isn’t just a book about language. It’s also a bestiary of American pop culture, many of whose stereotypes Bryson debunks (a back-formation from Buncombe County, N.C., of course): Ellis Island, in its original splendor, wasn’t half bad; the Puritans enjoyed a good time just like the rest of us; and Ray Kroc hadn’t the inventiveness of the Brothers MacDonald, after all. Bryson tells us a lot we surely never thought about. There’s the cost of sending a letter by Postal Express and the reason for the bump on the fuselage of the Boeing 747. “Debugging” of computers began, we are told, on the day 50 years ago when a moth entered a Navy computer. There are, however, some facts that aren’t facts. Bryson places the Polish-born British writer Joseph Conrad among the group of Americans whose names were changed from awkward foreignness. And, surprisingly for a lexicographer, he indulges in the popular confusion of the 18th-century “long s” and the modern “f.” This offering won’t replace the popular works by Flexner, much less the majestic Mencken, but the style is engaging and the narrative diverting. An index is appended, but there is no useful list of words and phrases.

If, as Winston Churchill has it, England and America are two countries divided by a common language, here’s some disarming help sent by a Yank from the other side of the pond.

Gerry McGrath’s first collection of poetry is published in his book “A to B”. It is reviewed here: https://bookreviewstoday.wordpress.com/2013/04/05/from-a-to-b-by-gerry-mcgrath/. He read from this when he came to visit a meeting of wkwriters. 

As well as being a highly visually stimulating poet, Gerry McGrath is also a poet concerned with humanity, with nature, with love and loss and how the prosaic and the poetic interact in day to day life.  The use of unconventional metaphors and similes gave many pleasant surprises as I saw things expressed in a way in which made perfect and beautiful sense however strange. Gerry McGrath describes ‘Untamed Lightning, Knees like Emaciated skulls, the sky…clean-shaven, Drowsy sail-cloth of your skin, Gossamer rain, Zany Butterflies, Pastry Roofs and Nicotine Grass.’ These are just a few examples of the arresting imagery which runs through this poetry collection. Some of the poems are as delicate as the ‘gossamer rain’ described by McGrath in the poem Sycamores. His poem Elegy appears in full here: https://survivingbreastcancernow.wordpress.com/2012/07/01/time-to-recover-watching-reading-listening-sharing/

I liked the later poems in this collection more than the earlier ones, although I do not know whether this was because they carried more depth of feeling or because by the time I reached them (I was more accustomed to and in tune with the poet’s tone of voice. The poems Secrets and Gift, which explore the art of writing poetry, struck me as particularly interesting as the creative process is highly individual to all writers and it is always interesting to be given a glimpse at how a poet writes. In Secrets he refers to a poet beginning with nothing and holding it ‘until it bleeds a secret’ a metaphor I found at once eerie and beautiful. In the poem Gift he refers to the way in which poets have the gift to observe ‘tiny immensities’, a gift which Gerry McGrath certainly has.

I think that ‘Tiny Immensities’ is such a beautiful and truthful phrase that it would make a good name for this collection of poetry, better than the current title A to B, which I found slightly off-putting. I understand that the collection was called A to B as it represents a journey, yet I feel that this title does not do the work as a whole any justice. The poem A to B from which I guess the title was taken, is my least favourite poem in the entire collection. In the poem McGrath tells us about butterflies, red-backed beetles and a dead marten but ends with ‘But let me tell you about the butterflies.’ While I realise that this premature ending was intentional I didn’t like it and felt let down that the poem did not go on to tell us about the butterflies as it seemingly promised to do. It only occurred to me later that this might refer to the other poems in the collection, some of which are as vulnerable and glorious as butterflies.

Some of the poems, particularly in the latter third of the book, were not so much poems, but snapshots of incidents, told in prose as precise as poetry. This was most apparent in the poems Busy, Currency, A Milky Sunlight, Two Friends, Mint Tea, Blue Light and Basics. I liked these almost poems best of all for the simplicity and honesty with which they were laid out and the way in which they all told an entire story in a snap shot. The scarcity of the language meant that by using fewer words McGrath was actually able to say more by imbuing his words with a deeper sense of meaning. The poem busy portrays someone cutting the poets hair while hearing about her Grandmother’s worsening condition. The combination of the prosaic ‘hair-clippings went flying out’ with the tragic ‘age, infirmity, depression, were all getting the better of her, pulling her down’ creates a beautiful sense of pathos, which runs on through the poems in this collection.

Every day is precious. Sometimes, in this blog, I may sound ungrateful. I am not. I know how lucky I am that my disease was found and treated early. I just do not like some of the results of my treatment. Still, it has made me slow down and given me time to spend time with those I love. Reading new books and some old favourites, sharing these with my family and friends and listening to all their views.

Valerie Penny

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A Pleasant Interlude Before Chemotherapy for Breast Cancer

There is a time of year, it is usually around the second half of May when school children and students are studying for exams. They spend hours and days inside and in the libraries, so what happens? The sun comes out!  

This year was no different. During that sunny weather at the end of May, before the chemotherapy for my breast cancer began. My husband and I arranged for my mother to visit with us for a few days holiday, before I suffered hairloss and other side effects of the treatment. A mother should not have to witness that, if it can be avoided. During that week I did have to meet with my psychologist for my usual two-weekly therapy session.

I was able to air my feeling of resentment that I have never smoked, do not drink excessively and do take exercise. Nevertheless, cancer was the card I had drawn.  One day was interrupted when I had to go back to the hospital, this time for an initial set of blood readings to be taken before my chemotherapy sessions start. The hospital even did a pregnancy test! As if my long suffering husband did not have enough to worry about! I also had to go to the hospital for a cancer clinic visit with the oncologist and collect medications that I would need to take before chemotherapy began at the beginning of June.

We went to lunch with Mum and she had time to visit her friend who lives in the South of the county. Sometimes it was warm enough, just to sit in the sunshine in the garden and relax.

I was glad my mother was able to visit before the chemotherapy started and to see me still looking and acting like me. I had felt able to do plenty of home cooking and baking so we were able to ensure that many of her favourite recipes were served during her stay.  My mother had been treated for bowel cancer about four years ago and is presently cancer free.

She dealt with her ailments with dignity and an uncomplaining grace, even when the hospital infected her wound with MRSA. MRSA stands for methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus.  Staphylococcus aureus is a species of bacterium commonly found on the skin and/or in the noses of healthy people. Although it is usually harmless at these sites, it may occasionally get into the body (eg through breaks in the skin such as abrasions, cuts, wounds, surgical incisions or indwelling catheters) and cause infections.

Patients may be colonised with MRSA when they leave hospital, and there has long been concern that MRSA might spread from hospitals into the community.  It was certainly true with my mother. Her condition was complicated by the fact she is allergic to penicillin.

I try to emulate her dignity and calm, but fall far short of the mark, I fear.  During my Mother’s visit the wkwriters had a visit from Gerry McGrath who read some of his poetry to us and focused on Blank Verse. One of Gerry’s anthologies of poetry is reviewed at https://bookreviewstoday.wordpress.com/2013/04/05/from-a-to-b-by-gerry-mcgrath/ My mother was able to join us for that meeting. I also re-read Made in America by Bill Bryson which I have reviewed at https://bookreviewstoday.wordpress.com/2013/04/05/made-in-america-by-bill-bryson/. The visit was a pleasant interlude and allowed me to divert my thoughts from cancer.

Valerie Penny

Time to Recover from Breast Cancer Surgery

It was over 20 years since I had spent time recovering from surgery. Then a caesarian section had delivered a beautiful baby, this time less glamorously a cancerous tumour about the size of a baked bean had been removed from my body. I had difficulty, even yet, accepting my limitations and giving in to the time I would need to rest to give my body the time it would need to heal.

Luckily, my husband set more realistic limitations than I was willing to admit were sensible. The care and attention he lavished on me with unquestioning love made me feel so cherished.

During this period, before I went back to have my wound examined by Mr Osman, I needed to rest but also to avoid isolation and boredom. These can quickly result in a deepening depression that can be hard to shake during cancer treatment. Facing cancer alone must be not only frightening but lonely.  The play, “The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart”, came to the village. At wkwriters.wordpress.com we put together reviews. This is mine. 

The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart

The National Theatre of Scotland brought their performance of “The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart” to the Village Hall. It was exciting to have performers of this standard come to the village. Unsurprisingly, the show quickly sold out.

The play was written by David Greig a Scottish playwright whose other works include Outlying Islands (2002) and The Architect which was made into a film in 2006. So it was no surprise that this works was thought provoking and entertaining.

It began with an excellent renditions of “The Twa Corbies” and music played an important part in the performance which tells the story of the straight laced academic, Prudencia Hart. She is a serious child of bookish parents and enters the world of academe. The main story revolves around a conference in Kelso at which the staid Prudencia speaks to her thesis “The Topography of Hell” while her arch academic rival Colin Sinclair offers a much more modern approach to the Border Ballads. The first part of the play is performed in rhyme.

After the conference Prudencia and Colin find themselves stuck in the border town due to a severe snowfall. Colin tries to get Prudencia to unwind, but fails. He joins in the karaoke at the pub with the locals while Prudencia sets off alone to find the B & B Colin has booked for them. She gets lost in a housing scheme and finds herself in a version of Hell that allows her time for self-discovery. The dialogue with a mysterious singer and the devil converts to prose and the second half of the play is much less tightly scripted than the first.

The Hell into which Prudencia descends surrounds her with books which she, alone with the devil, inhabits. Millenia pass. In her bid to escape from Hell Prudencia persuades the devil that he needs to experience life as a human. Ironically it is her nemisis, Colin, dressed only in his boxers who facilitates her escape. A riotous musical finale ensues.

Ballads and Karaoke numbers enhance the play. Music helps to change scene and attitude. Minimal stage settings allowed the small multi-talented cast to bring this provocative new play to our Village Hall.

gerryI also felt fit enough to attend the meeting of the poetry group the meets on the library.  I was thrilled t be able to do that. It allowed me to thank the poetry group for the lovely bouquet of flowers they sent me.

It was a special pleasure to join the group that day as renowned local poet, Gerry McGrath was reading some of his verse.  His website is gerrymcgrath.co.uk.  Gerry’s book A to B is reviewed at: https://bookreviewstoday.wordpress.com/2013/04/05/from-a-to-b-by-gerry-mcgrath/. ‎An example of his work is:

Elegy

No gunshot, just a book

falling shut under the great grey wall-

a ribbon of silk burning dimly,

bivouacked silence

and the blue-headed conscripts

pushing thumbs into the meat of their palms,

a pencil-trace of cloud and treasonous leaves,

indigo, matriarchs and knives,

the leprous planes, park benches,

benedicted, amok children, the scent of camomile

and sweet tedium, somewhere a keening band,

gaping church mouths, this mushroom-flecked

dregs of an unseasonable Sunday morning.

At the library, I also picked up the next book promoted by the book group. It is run by successful, local author Evelyn Hood. It was Gardens of Water by Alan Drew.  The story is set in a small town outside Istanbul, Sinan Basioglu, a devout Muslim, and his wife, Nilüfer, are preparing for their nine-year-old son’s coming-of-age ceremony. Their headstrong fifteen-year-old daughter, İrem, resents the attention her brother, Ismail, receives from their parents. For her, there was no such festive observance–only the wrapping of her head in a dark scarf and strict rules that keep her hidden away from boys and her friends. But even before the night of the celebration, İrem has started to change, to the dismay of her Kurdish father. What Sinan does not know is that much of her transformation is due to her secret relationship with their neighbor, Dylan, the seventeen-year-old American son of expatriate teachers.gardens-of-water-2

İrem sees Dylan as the gateway to a new life, one that will free her from the confines of conservative Islam. Yet the young man’s presence and Sinan’s growing awareness of their relationship affirms Sinan’s wish to move his family to the safety of his old village, a place where his children would be sheltered from the cosmopolitan temptations of Istanbul, and where, as the civil war in the south wanes, he hopes to raise his children in the Kurdish tradition.  However,  when a massive earthquake hits in the middle of the night, the Basioglu family is faced with greater challenges. Losing everything, they are forced to forage for themselves, living as refugees in their own country.

Their survival becomes dependent on their American neighbours, to whom they are unnervingly indebted. As love develops between İrem and Dylan, Sinan makes a series of increasingly dangerous decisions that push him toward a betrayal that will change everyone’s lives forever.  The deep bonds among father, son, and daughter; the tension between honoring tradition and embracing personal freedom; the conflict between cultures and faiths; the regrets of age and the passions of youth–these are the timeless themes Alan Drew weaves into a brilliant fiction debut.

Sharing interests and focusing on things other than my illness were critical to recovery, both mental and physical.

Valerie Penny

Making the Effort: Taking the Time

I love getting letters. I was appalled when the cost of stamps went up by such a large percentage earlier this year because I am sure it will result in fewer and fewer letters and cards being sent. Who can blame anybody for using e-mail or social networking sites to keep in touch rather than more traditional methods when the costs are so great?

It is certainly lovely to have been receiving so many pretty cards from friends and relatives, despite the cost of postage!  Not only that but the flowers and visits continued to arrive. Friends further afield would skype, phone and write.  Suddenly time was more important than anything else and the fact people were willing to spend their time with me was very humbling.

Around this time it also became clear to me that I should make the effort to spend my time wisely.  

There are some things I do not have the energy to do. Although I am registered with the local library to assist people who need help to use a computer, I do not feel able to undertake this duty just now. I am just too tired. Exhaustion is one of the most debilitating side effects of my treatment for me. However, I did feel able to attend the meeting of the poetry group the meets on the library.  I was thrilled t be able to do that. It allowed me to thank the poetry group for the lovely bouquet of flowers they sent me.

It was a special pleasure to join the group that day as renowned local poet, Gerry McGrath was reading some of his verse.  His website is gerrymcgrath.co.uk. One of his books A to B is reviewed at: https://bookreviewstoday.wordpress.com/2013/04/05/from-a-to-b-by-gerry-mcgrath/

Although I got tired easily and felt a bit tender after the surgery, it was important to me to meet with the group and join in usual social intercourse that did not revolve around me being sick.  I do not like being ill. I am sure most people would prefer to avoid ill health, if they could.

While I was at the library, I was able to pick up the book the library book group was reading that month.   It was Gardens of Water by Alan Drew.

I was equally thrilled when I felt well enough to go to the singing class that runs in the Community Centre. It was another way for me to meet and mingle with the people that I share this interest with too.  members of the group had taken the time to visit me and bring me flowers, so I was able to thank them for the lovely bouquet of flowers.  There is no doubt that making the effort to spend time with people and taking the time to share my interests with them made me feel better.

Valerie Penny

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