Cancer nasties

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One of the first things I did after I was diagnosed with breast cancer was to join an on-line support group. I was diagnosed on January 15, 2008; my membership in the “community” at a certain major breast cancer website (which shall remain nameless here) dates from January 17.

I should say, first off and up front, that I found amazing support there during the period between my diagnosis and surgery, and all through my four months of chemo. I mean, really amazing. As in, collecting-my-mail-and-finding-a-surprise-package-of-post-surgical-camisoles-and-nightshirts amazing. I think I cried that day.

Up to then, my experience with on-line communities consisted mostly of a running site, letsrun.com, on which horny cross-country guys told one another how much they sucked, wily masters smacked them down, and spelling-and-grammar trolls prepared to pounce. It could be a very mean place. It was also, often, very funny. (Just thinking about certain threads – “Fanny pack in a 5K,” “Deer Kara Goucher” – still makes me giggle.)

So as much as I valued the kindness and support of this new community – and I honestly don’t know how I would have made it through treatment without it – I also chafed a bit at the constant, unremitting, niceness. Was I a horrible person for wanting just a little acidity to cut through all that sweetness?  A newly-diagnosed woman would write something hysterical, making no sense whatsoever (I remember one post in particular, full of “omg’s” and misspellings and referring to chemo, I kid you not, as “tata juice”), and all I could think was, “imagine what the guys at letsrun would do with that.” Surely, someone here would offer some tough love: “Sweetheart, you need to get a grip and grow up. And for fuck’s sake, don’t call it tata juice.” But no. The warm, comforting responses would pour in, welcoming her to “the sisterhood no one wants to be a part of” and telling her that she had come to the right place. Not one word about the tata juice.

And I would feel thoroughly ashamed of myself. Still, I couldn’t shake the sense that this, too, was a form of loss. Cancer had already taken my left breast, my axillary lymph nodes, my ovarian function and my sense of invulnerability. Did I also have to give up sarcasm and bitchiness? Was I fated to a lifetime of signing notes “xoxoxo” and “gentle hugs”? (Which I still do, by the way, so I guess that’s a “yes.”)

As they say: be careful what you wish for. Continue reading

Eating Fifth Ave – El Continental Restaurante Salvadoreño

IMG_2445El Continental has long been my go-to place for pupusas. It’s not in Sunset Park, but it’s most definitely on 5th Ave (right at the corner of 20th St), and given the dearth of Salvadoran food in this part of Brooklyn, how could I set out to eat 5th Ave and not eat there? So on a sunny, pre-blizzard Sunday, Eric and I headed out for a stroll and some Salvadoran lunch.

pupusasPupusas, for the uninitiated, resemble thick, tender tortillas, stuffed with various fillings, and then griddled until the masa is lightly charred and the filling finds cracks to ooze out. They’re terrific here, and the curtido – savory Salvadoran coleslaw – that accompanies them makes them even better. When I’m feeling indecisive (which is most of the time), I ask for revueltas, in which three different fillings – cheese, beans and pork – are mixed together. If I had to pick just one filling, though, I’d go with loroco. That’s the name of a flowering vine that’s mixed with cheese to give the pupusas a pleasantly green taste.

Yesterday was a loroco day. Instead of mixing everything up in one dish, Eric and I ordered a variety of dishes – the pupusas, of course, but also beef stew and fried yucca with chicharron (pork in this case, but chicken is also an option). Way too much food, in other words.

The stew was tasty, the thick columns of yucca were like the world’s starchiest French fries (I mean that in a good way, mostly), and the chunks of fried pork were nicely accessorized with pickled onions in a startling shade of red . . . but, I have to say, the pupusas were still the stars.

To wash all this down, I had my usual drink here – marañón juice, made from the same fruit that yields cashew nuts. It’s a cloudy yellow color, not too sweet, and ridiculously refreshing. (There are other juices on offer, as well as Salvadoran horchata – different from the Mexican stuff – and fruit milkshakes.)

The televisions above the bar are generally tuned to sports – yesterday, I was able to watch skiing directly and soccer reflected in the mirror across the room. It’s a pleasant place to hang out, especially with blizzard warnings in the forecast. I sighed when it was time to leave our sunny window spot and head back outside. And now, with snow blowing everywhere, yesterday’s snapshot of the Corona/milkshake sign inviting me to find my beach is positively poignant.

shakes crop


Featured in this post:

El Continental, 672 5th Ave, Brooklyn 11215

El Continental Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Running while white

IMG_5014Lately, I’ve been doing some thinking about white privilege and running.  I know the term “white privilege” makes many white people defensive. Coming from another white person, it’s heard as simultaneously self-righteous and self-flagellating. Coming from a person of color, it’s heard as an accusation. And it invariably sounds oh-so-politically correct.

But it shouldn’t. And I’d like to think that just maybe, thinking about white privilege in the context of running – a relatively un-fraught, low-stakes topic – might make it easier to recognize it elsewhere, where the stakes are higher. (I’m thinking about myself and other white people here; I don’t think most people of color have any trouble recognizing white privilege.)

Without further ado, here are five ways I experience white privilege as a runner.

1. I can run wherever I want without being questioned or hassled. I routinely run through places where I “don’t belong”: Chinatown, Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods, low-income housing projects, industrial areas and so on. Not only do I engage in the suspicious behavior of running, I do it in all kinds of weather and at all times of day (including before dawn and after dark). I’ve been doing this for years now, and in all that time, I’ve never once been stopped by cops, security guards, neighborhood patrols or suspicious residents. I find that nothing short of astonishing: I mean, the way I look sometimes, I would stop me.

2. Most of the time, I’m blithely unaware of the police. I can afford to be blithely unaware because my life experiences (and those of my family members) don’t include being stopped while going about my business and questioned, frisked or worse. When I cross against the light (hey, I’m a runner, I’m impatient) right by a cop car, do you know what happens?

Nothing.

3. If I do notice the police, I assume they’re there to protect me. When I’m running in the park after dark, or in a deserted industrial area any time of day, and I see a police patrol, I feel safer. The thought that they might be looking at me as a “suspect” . . . in other words, that I might have something to fear . . . that thought never occurs to me. Literally, never.

4. Businesses cut me slack and treat me with respect. Like many runners, I have occasional bathroom emergencies far from home. When I appeal to use a “customers only” restroom, I’m usually successful. (And when I’m not, I’m shocked and outraged and walk away muttering about boycotts.) Sometimes, especially with larger establishments, I don’t even ask – I just brazen my way in, walking through a crowded restaurant or fancy hotel lobby with an air of entitlement.

5. I can count on seeing a lot of other people who look like me at races and running events. When I show up for a group run on a weekend morning, I know I won’t be the only white person there. When a black person shows up, they may or may not be the only black person there. Does that matter? Runners are runners, right? Well, sure – but I kind of think that if I were the only white runner in a black crowd, I’d be, at a minimum, aware of my race (just as I’m often made aware of my gender). The ability to remain unaware is a kind of privilege.

. . .

I don’t claim that my experience of “running while white” reflects that of all white runners. All of us are bundles of different identities, and I’m sure my running experiences are also shaped by the fact that I’m a woman, well into middle age, whose technical gear telegraphs her socioeconomic status as “not poor.” But I know in my gut that my experience of running would be different if all these other things were the same, and I had darker skin.

As I mentioned at the start, this isn’t about guilt. It’s not really about running, either. It’s about the need to talk about race frankly and non-defensively (and, may I add, to listen), as part of a broader effort to change things that need changing. I have some personal experience with how difficult these conversations can be (that’s a topic for another day) – but for heaven’s sake, we need to have them.


(A note: I had some technical difficulties putting this post up . . . by which I really mean that I accidentally clicked “publish” while still editing, and then had to figure out how to take it back. I have no idea what that means for people who follow this blog. If it resulted in confusing notifications, I apologize!)

Eating Fifth Avenue – Karen Deli Grocery

karen deli groceryThis small grocery with a kitchen and handful of tables in the back was the second stop on my eating tour of 5th Ave. I’d seen it from the B63 bus a couple of weeks ago, on the way back from a combo Century 21/Middle Eastern grocery run to Bay Ridge. The sign out front advertised “productos mexicanos y centro americanos,” but for some reason (like, maybe, the flags of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras flapping in the wind), I suspected the focus was on the latter.

Once I confirmed (thank you, Yelp and Urbanspoon) that the deli grocery served food in the back, Karen and I had a date.

First, though, I had to find the place again. I knew which side of the avenue it was on, and that it was close to 62nd St. (I’d jotted down a note to that effect on my earlier bus ride), but still managed to walk right by on the first pass. It’s that unassuming (plus, I was distracted by the storefront across the street, a botanica called “Curiosidades el Divino Niño” that had me, well, curious).

I spotted Karen on the second pass. Produce was piled out front, baked goods and containers of dried shrimp and pepitas flanked the cash register, and the freezer case held prepared pupusas, tamales and various Central American fruits. I walked by all that – must return! – to the kitchen in the back.

IMG_2418As far as I could tell, there’s no printed menu. The basic offerings are hand-lettered on sheets of paper taped to one side of the kitchen station, while some items (but not all) are pictured (with a number, but no name) on a display that wraps around to the front. Licuados and aguas frescas are listed on another poster on the back wall. For the uninitiated, it’s a little bewildering.

Not to worry. The two women who staff the kitchen couldn’t have been kinder, or more patient with my bad Spanish. I asked a few, halting questions – chuchitos, what are they? like tamales? what are they filled with? – and then ordered a single chuchito and a melon agua fresca. (That was before I saw their list of hot drinks, which included arroz con chocolate and atol de elote.)

As cute as lunchtime snacks get

So round and plump! This is as cute as lunch gets.

My chuchito was a plump ball of masa, filled with bits and pieces of chicken (watch out for bones) that had been cooked in a savory red sauce, the whole adorable package  topped with crema and powdered white cheese. I’ve had tamales that were more meltingly tender (this one was slightly singed on top, presumably from being reheated), but none that were cuter. (Think that’s silly? Well, guess what: “chuchito” derives from a Guatemalan slang term for “puppy.” So there.)

As I ate, I admired the décor (a white vase of artificial red roses made a strong statement against a lime green background) and the lunch of the guy at the table behind me. He was digging into fried chicken with a golden, bumpy crust, on a plate overflowing with various sides. It looked delicious.  Other menu items of note include pulike (also spelled pulique), a Guatemalan stew, and pacayas envueltas, date palm shoots (actually, the “male inflorescence” of the plant) dipped in egg batter and fried.

The tip jar on the counter read, in Spanish, “Thank you for your tips. May God bless you always.” I left a big one on my $4 tab.


Featured in this post:

Karen Deli Grocery, 6116 5th Ave., Sunset Park, Brooklyn, 11220

Karen Deli Grocery on Urbanspoon

Cancerversaries

My cancer album

When you’re diagnosed with cancer, you’re booted into a new country with its own language and customs.*  An example: marking “cancerversaries.” Spellcheck may not recognize the term (it’s underlined in squiggly red on my screen as I type this), but if you are, or have been, a cancer patient, you probably do.

A “cancerversary” is, of course, the anniversary of your cancer. Today is mine.**

I was diagnosed with breast cancer seven years ago, on January 15, 2008. What that means, specifically, is that I took a call from my doctor while at work. (Was it in the morning? The afternoon? I honestly don’t remember. You start out thinking these things will be seared into your memory, but it turns out they’re not.)  Despite the fact that I had recently been called back to investigate some sketchy mammogram findings, had something show up on the follow-up ultrasound (“almost certainly a cyst”), had that something aspirated (“yep, a cyst”) and the brownish fluid it contained sent to the lab for analysis (“standard procedure”) – and despite the fact that it’s rarely good news when your doctor calls you out of the blue – I was more puzzled than worried. Why on earth was Dr. S calling?

He was obviously uncomfortable, and his discomfort made him stammer, so it took a while for me to figure out what he was trying to say. I heard a “sorry” and an “unfortunately” and “cells” and then, finally, the word that got my attention: “malignancy.”

As I held the word “malignancy” up to the light, turning it around so I could inspect it from all angles, more words tumbled out. “Biopsy.” “Appointment.” “Surgeon.” “Lumpectomy.” “Radiation.” “Mastectomy.”

At the end of the call, ever polite, I thanked him.

I won’t go into the details of my diagnosis and treatment in this post, other than to say that Dr. S’s call put me on a long and winding road of biopsies, follow-up images, follow-up biopsies to the follow-up images, surgery and chemo. Screw all that. On my cancerversary, I’m going to skip right past the first eight months of 2008 and take stock, instead, of the months and years since then.

Here goes:

No evidence of disease. I am, by all the evidence, cancer-free. That’s not the same as being cured. With breast cancer, there’s no magic number of years after which you can breathe a sigh of relief and say, “There! It’s over and done.” I know that, and yet, with each cancerversary, it gets easier to approach life as though I am, in fact, cured. Call it denial, call it whatever, but it works for me. And speaking of life . . .

Life is generally good. I was the single mother of a teenager when I was diagnosed, and I had one non-negotiable demand of fate: to live long enough to see my daughter, then a freshman, graduate from high school. Anything short of that was unacceptable, anything beyond that would be a gift. And now? My high school freshman is a college senior, I’m married to a wonderful guy (two years and counting), I made the big move from Detroit to Brooklyn, and I’ve even returned to running as a modestly competitive age-grouper. Under the terms of the original deal, those are all “gifts” – but, you know, I’m looking to renegotiate. Because . . .

Having to be grateful all the time kind of sucks. Cultivating gratitude is a good and virtuous thing and I’m all for it. But to feel you must be grateful (especially for things other people are allowed to take for granted), or that it’s churlish to complain about creaky joints and numb armpits and slow 10K times and other stuff I won’t go into here (you’re alive, aren’t you?) . . . well, it’s oppressive. And complicated by a dollop of survivors’ guilt. Especially since . . .

My friends keep dying. Part of being diagnosed with cancer, at least in a world of online social networks and support groups, is that you meet many, many other people with cancer. Some of those people become good friends, and some heartbreaking number of those friends die. The shadow over every cancerversary is the knowledge that not everyone makes their next one. Laura, Randie, Dana, Elizabeth, Allison, Pamela, C: each year, the list of women I miss grows longer. Sometimes I miss them acutely and sometimes the missing is a kind of background thrum, but it doesn’t go away.

Those are my cancerversary thoughts. Now I’m going out for a run.

. . .

I always love getting comments on this blog, but with this post, I’m particularly interesting in hearing from other cancer patients. I hope you’ll feel free to share your own cancerversary stories – how (if at all) do you mark them, what memories do they stir up, and how has your approach to significant dates changed over time?

Or whatever the hell else you’d like to say.


*This is not exactly an original observation: Barbara Ehrenreich has described “Cancerland” with wit and anger, while Susan Sontag earlier wrote about the “kingdom of the sick.” What’s most striking, at least to me, are the many cancer patients who’ve never heard of either woman, but who grasp at the same images – of borders crossed, dislocation, foreign-ness – when they describe their own experiences.

**I consider my date of diagnosis to be my cancerversary, but the term could also apply to the date of initial surgery, the date of subsequent surgeries, first chemo, last chemo, etc. The rule is: your cancer, your choice. That rule, applied more broadly, is cancer etiquette 101.

Eating Fifth Avenue – Tesoro Ecuatoriano

The shark is a nice touch.

The shark is a nice touch.

Fifth Avenue in Sunset Park is dense with Latin American groceries, bakeries and  restaurants. (The distinction between those categories can be fuzzy – many groceries have a lunch counter tucked away in the back, and that bakery with the pastel-frosted, tiered wedding cakes in the window also offers roast suckling pig on weekends.) For the next month or so, I plan to make (at least) weekly eating excursions, checking out as many different cuisines and specialties as I can, and writing about them here.

Eric joined me for yesterday’s inaugural trip. Our focus: Ecuador. Two Ecuadorian restaurants face off against one another in the block between 40th and 41st streets. We checked in first at Castillo; although its awning referred generically to Spanish-American food, the menu was thoroughly Ecuadorian, down to the hornado (roast pork) and pescado encebollado (oniony fish soup). At 1:30 in the afternoon, the place was packed with families sharing big plates of delicious-looking food. So packed, in fact, that the waitress behind the cash register just shook her head sadly when we asked for a table.

We were kind of sad, too. But we got a grip on ourselves, and crossed the street to Tesoro Ecuatoriano.

IMG_2411Where Castillo was loud with excited children and family members shouting over one another, Tesoro was loud with a Spanish pop soundtrack. The place was dark and bar-like, decorated with Christmas lights, tinsel garlands that had seen better days and, incongruously, a deer’s head and startled pheasant mounted on the back wall. A few solitary (male) souls sat at the bar, eating soup and drinking beer and watching a dubbed action movie about a disabled submarine. A lone woman was finishing her lunch. A small group of hung over-looking men talked and drank at the only other occupied table.

Eric went Chino-Ecuadorian with seafood chaulafan (fried rice), while I went for broke with a weekend-only special,  Arroz Tesoro. I wasn’t sure what I’d be getting (guatita, what’s that? does tortilla de papas mean a Spanish-style potato omelet?), but if the restaurant saw fit to put its name on it and trot it out on Sundays, I was going to be a sport and give it a try.

What this namesake dish turned out to be was a kind of “greatest hits” sampler. A big pile of yellow rice and a fried potato patty (ah, so that’s tortilla de papas) anchored the plate, surrounded by shrimp ceviche with toasted corn nuts, half a fried plantain, a generous slice of avocado, a heaping portion of hornado, and tripe in a creamy, peanutty sauce. (That, my friends, is guatita, and before you go all squeamish and say “ick,” please take my word that it’s delicious. Or don’t, and leave more for me.)

It was food for six normal people, which is to say, Eric and I left with enough for a smallish lunch the next day.

To my regret, I wasn’t able to try “Quaker.” I had no idea what this was going in – it appeared under the beverage listings – but some furtive, on-the-spot googling took me to an Ecuadorian food blog that offered a primer and, as a bonus, a recipe. Quaker, I learned, is an oatmeal-based drink (yes, the name derives from the multinational food conglomerate/PepsiCo division) that blends soaked rolled oats with fruit and spices. It can be served either warm or cold, and I want some.

By the time we gave up on finishing our food and asked for our bill, the action movie had been switched off in favor of Spanish futbol (Granada v. Real Sociedad), tenemos canelazowhich was also projected onto the giant screen at the back of the room, beneath the deer and pheasant. A couple and their young daughter came in and ordered batidos (milkshakes), the men at the bar ordered more beers, and the place suddenly seemed a little livelier.  I’m guessing that by evening, it was hopping.

The lesson: if you want a convivial lunch spot, go to Castillo (but get there early or be prepared to wait). Drop by Tesoro later to drink beer and watch sports – or, if it’s cold outside, to kick back with a canelazo.*

*A hot, spiced alcoholic drink to warm you on cold Andean nights and dreary Brooklyn afternoons.


El Tesoro Ecuatoriano on Urbanspoon

Featured in this post:

El Tesoro Ecuatoriano, 4015 5th Ave., Sunset Park, Brooklyn 11232

Castillo Restaurant, 4020 5th Ave., Sunset Park, Brooklyn 11232

A clumsy runner greets the new year

IMG_2407

My first running mishap of 2015 came early. Tuesday’s program called for a loop and a half of Prospect Park, cutting across Center Drive to run the bottom of the park twice. On my second half-loop, for variety’s sake, I went off-road and onto the wide dirt path that hugs the south shore of the lake. It was cold and windy, but the bitterest of the bitter cold hadn’t yet hit, and a light snow softened January’s sharp edges.

What a beautiful morning.

Until – whoosh. My foot skidded on a sheet of ice, my arms flailed (great as a comic effect, useless as a practical measure), and I went down hard.

Next came the sound of ice cracking as a runner-size hole opened and half-submerged me in a deep mud puddle – mud pond, really. I had two immediate (and equally useless) responses.

Useless response #1: yell “goddammitshitfuck” at the top of my lungs.

Useless response #2: attempt to use the unbroken ice around me as a support to lift myself out of the freezing water.

As anyone who ever watched a child-in-peril melodrama (winter edition) knows, #2 does not work. But sometimes you have to learn things for yourself, and I was surprised and outraged when my efforts led to the horrifying sound of more ice cracking, a wider hole, and a profound sense of futility.

The only way up and out was to plunge my hands under the water to find solid ground. I did that and struggled to my feet, soaked to the skin. There was no Lassie to the rescue. There was no Saint Bernard with a flask of warming brandy. There was only a bundled-up walker, who clucked sympathetically as she passed but did not stop, and two miles between me and home.

I resumed my run, because what else could I do?

It was quite impressive how quickly my gloves and jacket froze solid. Running through the deserted park in that state was tough; running through the populated streets of Park Slope was even tougher. Knots of people are always milling around New York Methodist Hospital, and though you have to work hard to attract attention here in the Big City, I did get a few sidelong glances as I passed them. When I finally made it to our building, I understood why. The face reflected in the entry way mirror was that of a doomed polar explorer: frosted eyebrows, full-face ice beard, desperate, haunted eyes.

A plush robe, a hot drink and a warm shower chased away the deep chill surprisingly quickly. The bruise on my left hip is more stubborn, and I’ve spent the past two days charting its progress. It’s 6 inches long and 3 inches at its widest (yes, I measured) and is shaped like Jamaica flipped upside down. At first, with its concentric rings of different colors, it looked a bit like a topographic map. Later, I saw in it a swatch of old-fashioned chintz: two billowing pink cabbage roses surrounded by soft-edged foliage in pastel shades of purple, blue and green. Now it’s mostly darkened to midnight violet.

Though Eric can’t look at it without grimacing, I find it endlessly fascinating and oddly beautiful.

Postscript – when I ran by the site of the incident yesterday morning (safely on-road this time), I saw that park maintenance vehicles had been over the spot with a vengeance, breaking the ice and churning up the (now frozen) mud. It was my bad luck to be out running during what was probably a short window of danger, when enough snow had fallen to hide the ice but park workers had not yet rolled through.