25 Things About Me

1)    I have two beautiful boys who made big entrances into the world: One was 10 pounds, 9 ounces and the other was 10 pounds, 2 ounces. No C-sections. Just lots of drugs, lots of a pushing, a vacuum and two whopper episiotomies.
2)    My big boys left me with big tummy skin. Five years after the second baby arrived, I had a tummy tuck. I must say it was one of the best moves I’ve ever made. Something about sitting down and not having a roll of skin flop over the top of my pants is quite liberating.
3)    My biggest boy (Joey, he’s 8 years old) won’t stop growing. The kid wears my same shoe size, is something like four feet nine and weighs well into the 80s. His doc thinks he may be six feet six when he “grows up.”
4)    A tummy tuck is not the only surgery I’ve had. Before kids, I had a breast reduction and lost 4 pounds of dense, heavy tissue. I went from a 34 DDD to a 34 C. Another great move.
5)    My reduction may have saved my life, because 8 years later, a cancerous tumor showed up in my left breast. Had all that tissue not been removed, the mass could have been buried deep inside, detectable perhaps only at a late stage.
6)    My breast cancer was caught early (I found it while taking a shower). It was stage I, with no spread to lymph nodes. Still, it was aggressive and so my treatment was quite harsh.
7)    Being bald was the toughest thing I’ve ever had to endure.
8)    I am a licensed cosmetologist. Thought I didn’t want to go to college, so I did a vocational program in high school. Then realized I did want to go to college and spent the next seven years there.
9)    I got my undergrad degree from Kent State University and my grad degree from the University of Florida.
10)  I was born in Ohio and lived the majority of my years there. Yet Florida seems more like home, maybe because my mom and sister live here.
11)  Someone I know thinks my mom, sister and I look exactly alike. I guess that means I look 62 or my mom looks like she’s in her 30s. I’m going with the latter.
12)  For 30-some years, my sister and I were never told we looked alike. Then my hair grew back brown instead of the blonde it had always been, and it’s like we’re twins or something.
13)  I have very poor vision. What someone with perfect eyesight can see from 400 feet, I can only see from 20 feet. I hid my glasses in my bedroom closet for the whole year I was in first grade. Wonder if that made things worse.
14)  It took me 37 years to learn how to eat well. I figure a healthy lifestyle is my key to surviving cancer so no red meat, alcohol or sweets for me. I only drink water (although not enough, I’m pretty sure) and try to consume lots of fruits and veggies. I watch calories and fat but sometimes go overboard on the bad carbs. I just can’t resist restaurant bread.
15)  I’ve been known to exercise obsessively (to maintain my weight and stay healthy too) but am sad to report that I’m just not feeling the motivation lately. Burnout, maybe.
16)  I’m a neat freak but not a clean freak. I don’t clean once a week or anything, just when I notice the dust piling up. But everything must be in place at all times.
17)  I traveled to Europe just after graduating from high school and for the whole month I was away, I wanted to be home. I never want to go back.
18)  I hate to travel. I hate packing, driving or flying long distances, living out of suitcases. I was miserable on a flight to Hawaii many years ago, and while traveling from Ohio to Florida as a kid, I could will myself to sleep for almost the entire drive.
19)  My boys have never seen snow but can’t wait to see it. And I can’t imagine ever getting them to a snowy location, because it will require travel.
20)  My boys want a baby sister. I don’t want another baby.
21)  I miss my grandma, who died three weeks after my second guy was born.
22)  I love candles and silence.
23)  I love when my boys are really happy. My heart breaks when they are really sad.
24)  I have been married for 13 years. John remembers exactly what I was wearing the day we met. I remember that he complimented me on my cute toes.
25)   I’ve worked at a hair salon, a yogurt + tanning salon, as an RA at Kent State and a judicial officer at UF, as a college administrator, a preschool assistant teacher and as a server of booze at Blossom Music Center in Ohio. My favorite jobs, though, without question: Mommy and writer.

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Blog Book Tour – My Life With Laura: A Love Story

I must admit it’s tough for me to write this post, to share with you passages from a woman’s very personal diary, a young woman who had breast cancer, fought it and then passed away. It’s tough because it makes me sad that Laura, a young wife and mom to little girl Charlotte, had to die. It’s tough because Laura had the same disease I had, and that makes me consider my own mortality (again). I also feel guilty, in a weird sort of way, that I’m living and she isn’t.

It’s all so unfair, the way breast cancer swoops in, takes over and does what it wants. There’s no changing it at this moment in time, I know, but I like to think that awareness is a pretty powerful tool for clobbering the disease. Because if we know about breast cancer, how to help prevent it, how to empower those who have it and how to honor those whose lives are lost along the way, we can surely make strides. And this is why I pay tribute to Laura today.

What follows are a few excerpts from Laura’s journal, each one included in the book “My Life with Laura: A Love Story,” written by Laura’s Husband, Chad Moutray. If you like what you read and want more, please order your own book right here.

And so we begin.

In May 2006, after experiencing breast-feeding difficulties, Laura was diagnosed with stage three breast cancer in her left breast and surrounding lymph nodes. She went through the “ringer,” she wrote, thought she was in the clear and then the disease can back.

June 8, 2006

I started chemotherapy today. More on that later, but for now, I feel seasick, mild headache between eyebrows, a little warm. Drinking lots of water and staying still. Numbness coating legs, feet, knees so a little wobbly. Loud noises are a little startling. Foggy brain.

Late June/Early July 2006

I have breast cancer, And now everyone else knows it, too, because my hair fell out and I have to wear scarves. But it’s okay because I’m getting better.

After a trip to the emergency room, a four-day stay in the hospital for low white blood cell counts, viral and bacterial infections and surgeries, Laura wrote:

I am learning to find a deeper peace with God.

Chad writes that things go well for a bit. Laura feels better, they don’t need to rely on volunteers as much and Laura does a little potty-training with Charlotte. Chad and Laura are optimistic. So are doctors. Then things go downhill. Laura experiences severe pain, suspicious spots are found on her hip and Laura has back surgery to fix a fractured vertebra. Her disease had progressed.

After contemplating the real possibility that she might die from her cancer, Laura wrote a letter to her husband, Chad. A few of the sentences she wrote:

I’d like to be creamated because it takes up less space, is cleaner, and quick/easy/cheaper.

If you want to remarry (which is fine, you deserve it), find someone who wants to be a good mother to Charlotte. Maybe someone who could give her some brothers and sisters.

Please let her be in contact with my family, even if it’s only once a year at the holidays if you choose to move away. They love her, and I want her to really know and love them, too.

On November 13, 2007, Laura passed away. But her legacy lives on in My Life With Laura: A Love Story, a book dedicated to little Charlotte, so she will forever know her mother.

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Two words: Tim Tebow

John and Joey went to the Gator basketball game last night. And ran into Tim Tebow. You know, that quarterback guy who had a thing or two to do with the Gator Championship win on Thursday night. Well, they got a chance to meet him, shake his hand and pose for a photo. John says Joey was like a deer caught in the headlights and reports that he, himself, was reduced to stumbling for words upon meeting this football superstar, who, by the way, announced today that he will be back for another year of Florida football. You can bet John and Joey will be in the stands, cheering him on.

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Chemo was bad. The next worst thing about breast cancer, though, was this nasty allergic reaction I had to the tape/latex used during my surgery to remove the tumor that threatened my life. What started as a few red bumps grew into quite a mess of blistery yuck. It burned and itched, made my skin crawl and sent me nearly over the edge. My surgeon (and a dermatologist he pulled into the case) had never before seen anything like it, and they hadn’t a clue what to do about it. They gave me Xanax to get me through.

The reaction happened again, in response to an antibiotic I received while hospitalized for low blood counts. And now, it’s happened again.

Tegaderm tape could be the trigger of this allergy. Well, either that or latex. So I always list both as allergies when asked by medical professionals. I’m sure it’s on my chart at the dermatologist office, but somehow I was sent home after my skin cancer surgery on Monday with bandages containing, oops, latex (there they are, pictured above, apparently “ouchless”). Sure enough, I slapped them on my arm, covered my stitches and then 12 hours later discovered the mistake I’d made. A mess of blistery yuck. It burns and itches, makes my skin crawl and is sending me nearly over the edge.

Double check. That’s what I’ve got to do from now on. No more assuming that someone else is going to look out for my best interests, that someone else is going to actually read my patient paperwork for a listing of my allergies. Nope. It’s all on me. Well, all over me, right now. Which is proof that no one can take better of me than me.

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Operation Skin Cancer

I know, it’s gross. Or maybe you don’t think it’s gross, I don’t know. Regardless, I publish this picture as a simple reminder that careless sun bathing during teenage and young adult years can cause this to happen to you, like it did me. Heck, reckless sun-seeking behavior during childhood and old age can do it too. And it doesn’t need to be sun bathing. Running outdoors, walking your dog outdoors, tossing a football outdoors (hey, that reminds me: Go Gators!), anything that keeps you in the scorching rays without sunscreen or other cover-up gear for more than, say, 15 minutes is downright dangerous. Go ahead and enjoy your 15 unprotected minutes each day (this is your best bet for soaking up a good dose of vitamin D), but otherwise, be warned, my friends. Or you could look like this.

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Silver lining, navy glasses

I like to find the silver lining in all things, if I can. Take my eyes, for example. My vision is utterly horrible, aways has been, ever since something like the first grade. For a long time, my eyesight got worse and worse, which means my glasses got thicker and thicker, which means I normally wear contacts all. the. time. Because my glasses never look trendy or even remotely stylish. They just look thick. The silver lining: My eye doctor recently told me about this new type of glass and all these techniques available for making it look less like a Coke bottle. So I got new glasses. In a pretty navy frame. Just picked them up today. And here they are.

My new glasses are not totally free of thickness. The thick is still there, it’s just not as bad as it could be. Makes sense. My vision is 20/400, after all, which, if you’re not clear on the meaning of this, translates as follows: What a person with perfect vision can see from 400 feet, I can’t see until I’m 20 feet away. I’m something like technically blind, except I can see figures and shadows. Hold up some fingers, though, and unless I’m wearing contacts or my sporty new specs, I’ll have no idea how many are standing tall. A guess is all I can make.

I’m guessing right now that I’m going to like wearing my new glasses for more than getting to and from the bathroom at night. Not just because I think they rock. But because my 5-year-old Danny has told me several times since I put them on, “You look so cute.” I don’t care that 8-year-old Joey said, “They make your eyeballs look really small.” I’m sticking with Danny. He delivered just the silver lining I was looking for.

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Skin Cancer Be Gone

I’m not sure what I expeceted when I reported for my skin cancer surgery this morning. I mean, how bad could it be? The spot on my arm was small, after all. Really small.

The surgery wasn’t bad, really, it just wasn’t what I had in mind. Here’s how it went: Technician girl got me all set up on a reclining chair-type thing. Head back. Feet up. Towel across my tummy. Affected arm on towel. Doctor comes in. Technician girl shoots numbing stuff into my arm, all around the cancer spot. No pain, just a few pin pricks. Doctor explains that while the cancerous spot is a circle, she will make a cut like a football to make suturing easier (same thing my tummy tuck doc did too). Problem with this is that it makes the incision lots bigger, longer. This is one thing I did not anticipate. I also didn’t anticipate feeling the doctor cut my skin. “I can feel that,” I told her. Technician gave me a few more numbing shots. “I can still feel that,” I shared. More shots. Finally, I felt nothing more.

I have no idea what the doctor did, really, because I didn’t look. I never can look when a doctor does something to me. It makes me queasy and dizzy and well, the same way I feel when I don’t look.

“I feel dizzy,” I told the doctor, as she tugged her stitches back and forth through my skin and black spots flashed before my eyes. She reclined my chair even more, told me in five minutes I’d feel better. It took a bit longer than five, and a glass of water, before I could make my way to the reception desk to pay for the pleasure of this surgery. Armed with written instructions, some bandages, an ointment and an appointment card (stiches come out in two weeks), I was on my way. And here I am at home, with an almost entirely numb left arm and hand, feeling pretty certain I’m going to have one beauty of a scar when this thing heals up. Yea, not what I expected. But hey, in the words of Joey, my new 8-year-old: “Things could be worse.” Indeed, they could.

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Ode to Joe

My mom and sister weren’t sure I could ever have a baby. I don’t mean physically have a baby. I mean mentally have a baby. Too much of a whiner, I guess, to hack the pain involved. I surprised them both on that January 3 day, back in 2001, when I pushed out a 10 pound, 9 ounce baby boy with the aid of a heavy-duty epidural and the powerful suck of a vacuum. When Joey emerged, heavy as a sack of rocks and appearing more like a two-month-old than a newborn, all was well with the world. I had done it. I’d had a baby. I didn’t even whine. Score one for me. Joey didn’t fare so well. He turned out to be, well, a whiner.

Joey whined for much of his early life. He just was not a happy boy. He fussed, complained, demanded and generally traveled against the grain. It was a challenging few years and sometimes, I find myself looking back at home videos to remember his few happy baby and toddler moments. My theory is that Joey never wanted to be a little kid. He was a big boy, after all (22 pounds by the time he hit six months). Maybe he wanted to act his size before his body would allow for it.

Joey hit his stride by the time he was five. My shy, difficult boy turned social and easy-going by the end of kindergarten. In first grade, he was independent and spirited. Now in second grade, my guy walks himself to class, works hard, gets good grades, is well-liked by his peers and rarely puts up a fight. Now, it’s not that he doesn’t argue with his brother, bump heads with me about homework and lobby for a later bedtime and more candy. It’s just that his behavior now is manageable. It’s typical eight-year-old stuff, not over-the-top little-boy madness.

Today, Joey is eight. And I am so in awe of this boy, who has both worn me out and warmed my heart. I remember a pediatrician once telling me his personality at three months would be his personality for life. I just need to learn to cope, and teach him to cope, the good doc told me. But it didn’t happen that way. Just as I was learning to find peace with my tempermental small kid, this beautiful and confident bigger boy emerged. A boy who rarely whines, always tells me he loves me and is so surprised when we tell him stories about his years of discontent.

I think Joey was meant to be eight. The age fits him perfectly. All is well with the world. And I have absolutely nothing to whine about.

Happy Birthday, Joey. I love you, too.

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Skin cancer, indeed

It’s skin cancer, that little red spot on my arm that I watched and watched and watched. It must have taken me months to get my butt into the office of my dermatologist. What’s wrong with me? I know what’s wrong: Even after having a serious form of cancer, I still believe the darn disease isn’t going to happen to me. A red patch on my arm? Probably nothing. So I plug along, until it hits me that the thing isn’t going away, that its changing shape and color is probably a sign of something I don’t want. Cancer.

I think I knew the day of my biopsy what the outcome would be. And my phone call this morning confirmed it. Basal cell skin cancer. Bummer. It’s not a big, scary deal, though. Most skin cancers are of this variety and are largely curable.

I’m headed to have this cancer removed on Monday. A doctor will dig deep and remove everything she can. And I won’t have it anymore. And then hopefully, I will learn my lesson and report to her office for anything else that looks remotely suspicious. That’s my plan, anyway.

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I love you, a little bit

Danny recently made his Nanny a thank-you card for the Christmas gifts she gave him. He drew pictures of her favorite things—a butterfly, a flower, a swimming pool, a rainbow, an alligator, a snail and a wolf (a cat is what he intended, but he said he couldn’t draw one). When I told him I really liked the snail, he announced that he would make me something. “It’s a secret,” he said. “Don’t look.”

I didn’t look. But I couldn’t help but notice the fit he threw when he messed up on his masterpiece. Crayons went flying. Scissors hit the floor. Groans and moans filled the room. I was mad. I told him his behavior was not appropriate, that he needed to calm down and start again. He eventually did. I praised his ability to recover and told him, “I love you, Danny.”

“I love you, too,” he said. “A little bit.”

I’m OK with this. I know Danny loves me more than he lets on. He proved it by making me four perfect snails, one for each person in our family (“This one is daddy, this one is you, this one is me when I was a baby and this one is Joey when he was two”). He put them in brown lunch bag, folded it over, taped it closed and asked how to spell “Jacki.” I told him. He wrote it down. And then he presented me with his gift.

“It doesn’t matter if the letters are backwards,” he declared while handing over the bag. No it doesn’t. A backwards “J” works just fine for me.

My four little snails, drawn with orange marker and cut out in kindergarten fashion, sit next to me at this very moment. They are beautiful. And so is Danny. I really love that guy. A lot.

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Hair by cancer

First, my hair was blond. Then it was gone. It grew back dark and curly. Now it is less curly (but only entirely straight when I flat iron it). And it’s lighter (without the assistance of any chemicals), like it’s going back to its original color. Funny what cancer did to my hair. And how I like it better now than ever before.

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It could be skin cancer

I went to the dermatologist on Monday for a suspicious something on my arm. It’s a small, red patch of skin that appears to change in size and color. Seemed time to have it checked out, so off I went with two little boys in tow to an exam room where a nurse numbed and a physician assistant removed a slice of skin for biopsy. Then the PA said, “It could be skin cancer.”

“Cancer?” said 7-year-old Joey. “That would be your second cancer. What was your first one again?”

I told him my first was breast cancer and that he shouldn’t worry since most skin cancers are pretty easy to fix. The PA jumped in, confirming that yes, indeed, skin cancer is usually no big deal. Sometimes, it’s removed with the biopsy alone, she said.

And so that is my hope, that if it is skin cancer that lives on my arm, it’s the kind that is a cinch to eradicate. Well, my hope is that it’s not skin cancer at all because, really, one cancer is enough. No seconds for me, thank you.

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Ho, Ho, Ho

For all you Santa-believers out there, the big guy is almost here. Are you ready? We are.

Our tree is up, decorated and sparkling with white lights. A few wrapped gifts sit underneath, tempting two little boys who want to know so badly what’s packaged inside. Our gas fireplace is roaring (even though Florida temps will reach the 70s today), and we have our kids fully confused about how exactly Santa will enter our house without a chimney.

We’re all abuzz here about what the jolly old guy will deliver. Will it be a Wii, Ben 10 toys, a pirate castle? We’re also wondering what will happen if we catch Santa in our house. “What if I wake up and see Santa here?” 7-year-old Joey asked. “He’ll probably just tell you to go back to bed,” was my response. Good enough? I’m not sure.

I’m not really sold on the whole Santa story. I know it’s all in good fun, but I wonder when we’ll be found out, what we’ll say to explain our sketchy stories. Today, it doesn’t matter. Today, it’s all about the countdown to Santa and gifts and family and fun. It’s exciting indeed.

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A love story and a blog book tour

When I first got my copy of Chad Moutray’s book “My Life with Laura: A Love Story,” I looked at the photo on the front cover, then the photos on the back cover, then I realized there are photos scattered throughout. I studied these photos, looking deeply at the shots of Chad, Laura, their little girl Charlotte. I tried to put myself in their shoes, because I kind of was in Laura’s shoes, and I imagined what it must be like to be them. In some ways, I know what it’s like. Like Laura, I had breast cancer. Breast cancer and a husband. And kids. And family and friends who care so deeply. I had doctors visits, and surgery, and a bald head. Just like Laura did.

But Laura’s path and my path are different too. One year ago, she passed away. And four years after my diagnosis, I’m still living. And so I don’t fit entirely in Laura’s shoes. I have this book, though, sent to me by the love of Laura’s life, and I am about to dive into each page so I can fully appreciate the life belonging to this beautiful young woman. And I’m going to tell you all about my new book on January 14, 2009.

Chad Moutray has invited me to join his Blog Book Tour. In addition to many others who will write about his work on blogs across the country, I will feature this man and his story right here on my blog. Maybe I’ll publish a review, maybe I’ll interview Chad, maybe I’ll do something else. In some way, though, I will present to you the inspiring story of one man, one woman, and one little girl whose lives will be forever touched by a disease so many of us are fiercely trying to outrun.

January 14. See you then.

More about the book tour here.

More about the book here (you can download the book here for just $5 or buy a paperback for $24.99).

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Last night while John was reading the boys’ favorite Goosebumps book, 5-year-old Danny curled up in my lap (I love that), tugged at my shirt and asked, “Where’s that thing, where you had that bump?” I knew just what he meant. He wondered where to find the area where a port once poked up from underneath my skin. (My port lived near my collarbone for almost two years so that chemotherapy drugs had easy access to my veins.) I pointed to the area, now marked by a very faint scar about two inches long.

“Oh,” he said, and then returned his attention to the story about a boy who became a wax figure in a museum.

Danny doesn’t have much memory of breast cancer. A “thing” and a “bump” pretty much sum up his recollection of a disease that entered his life when he was just 18 months old. It seemed sad way back then to have a baby and cancer at the same time. Now, it seems a blessing. He doesn’t have a clue really. And that’s just how I think it should be.

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Saving Second Base

Of all the cutesy cancer slogans out there, this is my favorite: Save Second Base. I like it because that’s what I’m doing, saving my own personal second base with every self-exam, clinical exam, mammogram, ultrasound, MRI, morsel of healthy food that passes through my lips and with every mile I run.

Check out these clever quips I’m borrowing from the spunky survivor over at Melon Wars. Go visit and see her whole list. These are a just a few of my faves.

  • Eyebrows Are So Last Year
  • Bald is the New Black
  • I Have Cancer – Cancer Doesn’t Have Me
  • Chemo – Breakfast of Champions
  • Nice Try Cancer, But I’m Still Here
  • Does This Shirt Make My Head Look Bald?
  • Bald Chicks Rule
  • I’m Confused. Wait Maybe I’m Not.
  • I Pay My Oncologist Big Bucks for This Hair Style
  • Friends Don’t Let Friends Fight Cancer Alone
  • Fight Like A Girl
  • Unbeknownst to the Mosquito, I Just Had Chemo
  • One Day Pink Will Just Be for Princesses. Let’s Find A Cure.
  • Breast Cancer Isn’t for Sissies
  • Fighting Cancer and Still Fabulous

Got any you’d like to share? Please do.

Like that Santa Baby bra pictured above. It came from this blog right here.

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