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Dying in Cancer's Wilderness

Sunday, January 29, 2012

©Brenda Coffee. All rights reserved.

Every week I hear from lots of women. They tell me stories that inspire and some that make me question the nature and future of mankind. This is one of those stories. "Rhonda" is 44 years old and has late Stage IV metastatic breast cancer. "Mike," her husband of nine years, has gone as far as he wants to go as her caregiver and has asked his girlfriend to move in with him and Rhonda. It seems as though Mike is “tired” of cancer; tired of having a wife who doesn’t feel well, a wife he’s no longer attracted to and one who’s not interested in sex.

On the other hand, Mike’s girlfriend is healthy, younger and seems to have given Mike a new lease on life in the bedroom. But wait... There’s more. Mike has moved his wife into the guest room where she can hear her husband and his new girlfriend making love as she lies in bed alone, in pain, waiting to die. There is no delicate way of describing this demeaning end to a life and a marriage that at one time, had love and promise, but Mike and his girlfriend have given new meaning to the word “scum.”<PREVIEWEND>

Over and over I’ve asked myself what kind of man does this; what kind of girlfriend gets involved with a man like Mike, and how did Rhonda windup being so vulnerable that she feels she has no other option? I know what it’s like to be without my husband and to literally have no family, except for my mother who has dementia, but I have dear friends who would be there if I needed help. I’ve tried to put myself in Rhonda’s position. What must it feel like to be so lost and alone and without resources? What must if feel like to have your self worth thrown out like yesterday’s trash?

Sadly, there are endless variations to Rhonda’s story, women who are alone and in less than ideal settings as they go through breast cancer treatment and cope with end of life issues. My friend and fellow breast cancer blogger, Terri Wingham at A Fresh Chapter, recently wrote a blog about meeting women in Vietnam who’ve been abandoned by their husbands and left to fend for themselves with no money for food or treatment for their breast cancer. Another friend and breast cancer survivor, Philippa Kibugu-Decuir of Breast Cancer Initiative East Africa, has told me similar stories about women in her home country of Rwanda.

What must it be like to be treated as though you are to blame for your breast cancer, told that you are no longer wanted or valued? Some of this heartless behavior is a result of an uneducated populace in countries where survival of the fittest defines the basics of everyday life. Mike, however, lives in the wealthiest country in the world where he has a college education, a car, a job, a modern home and food in his refrigerator. So, how do the “Mikes” of the world come to be that way? Where does their lack of respect for life and family come from?

I wonder if the actions of other men influence them, men like John who ran for President of the United States, whose girlfriend gave birth to his child while his wife, Elizabeth, was fighting Stage IV breast cancer? Yes, these men give new meaning to the word “scum” along with “shallow,” “selfish” and “cruel.”

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An Educated Life

Sunday, January 22, 2012

©Brenda Coffee. All rights reserved.

I know an extraordinary amount of things most people would find trivial, boring or shocking. For instance I can discuss, in depth, tertiary yaws, those microscopic survivors from the Cenozoic Era that bore into the soft tissue of human feet and cause spontaneous amputation of the toes; I can give a scientific dissertation on how a basket of discarded tomato, potato and eggplant peels, when treated with 2-4-6 dimethyloxytropinone could make every man, woman and child in a small town hallucinate and swing from street lights like monkeys, and I know far more than I care to about the sexual appetites of some of America’s favorite rock stars. It’s not what you think, but I’m sworn to secrecy. Sorry.<PREVIEWEND>

My formal education has taken me from being able to read a book by myself at the age of three, play Rachmaninoff’s piano Concerto in D Sharp Minor when I was nine, come close to flunking my senior year of high school and finish college after two aborted attempts. None of the teachers I encountered along the way made much of an impression on me or imparted anything of real value, except for my college journalism professor. He forced me, against my will, to compose my thoughts at the keyboard and then to convey them in an inverted pyramid style, skills for which I am forever grateful.

My informal education is full of unorthodox and often outrageous teachers who taught me how to corner a 2000-pound, three-liter, rear engine car at 120 miles-per-hour without losing control; how to tether myself to a helicopter in flight, sit on the landing skids and take pictures without falling off and how to hang by one arm from the back of a moving train, then hoist myself successfully back on board. Unfortunately, none of my instructors are still among the living.

All in all, the variety of subject matter to which I’ve been exposed, as well as my learning curve, has failed to fit the profile of any standard curriculums. I am just now learning how to be still in the moment, how to talk to a mother I’ve had for nearly 60 years and how to recognize and give thanks for my many blessings. Before James died, my life was fuller and calmer than it had ever been. I had a husband who nurtured and loved me more than either one of my parents and who, daily, showed me the meaning of true character.

I’ve learned how to relate to women, to have girlfriends I look forward to spending time with and to talk about feelings, as opposed to power-to-weight ratios and return on investments. No longer am I looking for approval from, or am anchored by, the man in my life, and I’ve finally learned to live what most people call a “normal life.” I’ve learned what real love is, the giving of self, the grace of God, come to terms with the duplicity of man and I've realized that ego can be all encompassing.

Cancer has been one of my greatest teachers. Aside from giving me an up close and personal look at mortality, it has nurtured the deepest parts of my spiritual side; made me realize that while I’ll never have the mother I want, I can be the daughter she needs, and it’s helped me separate the people who matter from those who don’t. Cancer has made me more compassionate than I thought possible, has made me cry over something as simple as an apple pie and and made me determined to live my life out loud. 

What are the most profound lessons you’ve learned in your life?
Has life or cancer changed you; has it made you less judgmental and more open to try new things, or has it made you more fearful of the future? Since we don’t know whether we have a day, or a decade, I hope you: postpone death by living, eat pie, extend a hand, put yourself out there in ways that make you uncomfortable and become acquainted with God.





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Parabens: Do They Cause Cancer and Do They Prevent Chemo From Killing It?

Sunday, January 15, 2012


Parabens and their links to breast cancer are in the news again. Widely used as preservatives in many cosmetic and toiletry products like antiperspirants, parabens have been found to have an estrogen-like effect in the body, and estrogen is an established risk factor for breast cancer. Numerous studies have questioned whether parabens can be linked to the development, growth and progression of breast cancer. Most recently, the University of Reading, in England, studied 160 tissue samples from 40 women who underwent mastectomies between 2005 and 2008. This month, the findings were published online in the Journal of Applied Toxicology.<PREVIEWEND>

Ninety-nine percent of tissue samples were found to contain at least one paraben and 60 percent of samples were positive for five of the most common parabens (methylparaben, ethylparaben, propylparaben, butylparaben and isobutylparaben). Most importantly, women who said they never used deodorant--most deodorants are known to contain parabens--had measurable parabens in their breast tissue. The implications of this study seem to indicate that parabens are entering the breast from sources other than deodorant.

The study’s chief researcher, Dr. Philippa Darbre, did a similar but smaller study in 2004. The levels of parabens found in her most recent study were four times higher than the 2004 study. "Since 2004, many manufacturers, although not all, have been removing parabens from the underarm deodorant/antiperspirant products and so I was rather surprised when we found higher levels of parabens in these (more recent) breast tissues," Darbre said. Dr. Michael J. Thum, vice president emeritus of epidemiology and surveillance research for the American Cancer Society was quick to point out that just “because parabens were detected in the majority of the breast tissue samples cannot be taken to imply that they actually caused the breast cancer.”

So, where does this most recent study leave us? Should we avoid products that contain parabens or should we wait until more and larger studies are conducted? Dr. William Goodson, principal researcher at the California Pacific Medical Center says that methylparaben can also interfere with the effectiveness of drugs used to fight breast cancer. Goodman took noncancerous breast cells from high-risk patients, grew them in a laboratory and found that once the cells were exposed to methylparaben, they started behaving like cancer cells. Tamoxifen, a drug designed to prevent or treat cancer, slows down the growth of both healthy and cancerous breast cells and ultimately leads to their death. However, when tamoxifen was introduced in the lab, the cells exposed to methylparaben kept growing and didn't die. “Methylparaben not only mimics estrogen's ability to drive cancer, but appears to be even better than the natural hormone in bypassing the ability of drugs to treat it,” Goodson said.

Clearly more paraben/breast cancer studies need to be conducted. The FDA believes that “at the present time there is no reason for consumers to be concerned about the use of cosmetics containing parabens.” If parabens are winding up in breast tissue in ways other than deodorant, and parabens can interfere with chemo's ability to kill cancer, I’m not waiting for “the ultimate study” to tell me to avoid parabens.

There are lots of great body care and cosmetic products on the market that don’t contain parabens. If you have a Whole Foods in your area, ask the sales clerk to advise you. I’ve bought, and used, almost every deodorant, shampoo, facial cleanser and moisturizer Whole Food’s carries and have found my personal favorites that work best for me.

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Old Friends

Monday, January 09, 2012

©Brenda Coffee. All rights reserved.

I spent the weekend with three of my girlfriends from high school. Once again, our time together confirmed my belief that there’s no friend like an old friend. Old friends are a lot like your favorite pair of shoes: comfortable, yet supportive, and with just the right amount of pressure in all the right places. Each time my girlfriends and I see each other, we pick up the conversation as though no time has elapsed since we were last together. More importantly, we unconditionally accept one another, warts and all. While we’re still the same girls we were in high school, our common experiences have bonded us together above and beyond that of casual friends, and in the last year, those bonds have deepened in ways none of us could have predicted.<PREVIEWEND>

It was just a little over a year ago the four of us and our husbands got together to eat, drink and celebrate life. If a fortune teller had stepped into our midst that day and predicted what lay ahead, we would have told her to pack up her gypsy wagon and go sell crazy someplace else. Unfortunately, crazy happened, and to say it caught us all off-guard would be an understatement. Four week later, James died unexpectedly and his family painfully dissolved; three months later Bonnie’s husband died unexpectedly; six months later parts of Bonnie’s home was caught in the most destructive wildfire in Texas history, and the month after that, Gayle was diagnosed with breast cancer. This weekend though, none of us shed a tear over the events of last year. Instead, our tears were because at one time or another, each of us has set aside our own pain to reach for the other’s hand and pull her up.

Friendship is one of the intangibles in life. It can’t be measured or quantified, but it’s found in the laughter and the unspoken words of a compassionate heart. A real friend steps in when you need help the most, when everyone else doesn’t know what to do or say. One special friend in particular, my friend Joan, called me every single night, without fail, for six months after James died until she was certain I was in a better place.

As I made my way home, today, I listened to Paul Simon’s Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes and got to thinking: My girlfriends are the diamonds on the soles of my shoes. While the great girlfriends in our lives may never walk in our shoes, from time to time they stand in the same space with us and help us through things we never dreamed we could face.

When was the last time you called, not emailed, a girlfriend who helped you through breast cancer or another tough time and told her how much you love and appreciate her?
When’s the last time you encouraged her or said a prayer for her? Or, perhaps there’s someone you’d like to be friends with. If so, it takes a long time to become an old friend. What are you waiting for?

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Beginnings and Opportunities

Sunday, January 01, 2012


One of my favorite words is "beginning." No words are more powerful than “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” I am humbled and awestruck every time I contemplate the power of God. Perhaps for me, that’s why the word “beginning” conveys such strength and hope. In the beginning, everything is shiny and new, and we’re brimming with hope, good intentions and lots of can do attitude.

Beginnings are opportunities for us to start over, to begin again,<PREVIEWEND> whether it’s with a diet, a relationship or New Years’ resolutions. We don’t have to wait until New Years, however, to begin, again, because the dawning of each new day brings us the opportunity to recharge ourselves mentally and physically. I think most of us look forward to new beginnings because each one comes with the promise of something that has the power to change our lives. For the most part, we are the one who can change our lives, not a new job or a new year, but what we, and only we, do with the opportunities they present.

Beginning again is what our bodies do automatically. Without our being aware of it, with each new breath, our bodies refresh our brain and our other organs. It’s part of what God thoughtfully set in motion when He created man in His own image, and it’s one of the keys to our survival. Every breath is an opportunity to start over, to forgive, to love, to learn, to let go of the things that don’t serve us well and to consciously make an effort to seek out those things that refresh and stimulate us.

This weekend I was looking at television programming aimed primarily at women. I tried to watch a couple of Bravo’s “Real Housewives” reality series, but they only made me feel sorry for the women involved. Whether they’re from New Jersey, Atlanta or Beverly Hills, I’m saddened by their foul mouths and the disrespect they show themselves and one another. Granted, there’s a certain shock value and train wreck quality to them, and who isn’t curious about how other people live, but aren’t you afraid you’ll get some of “it” on you, and it won’t come off? I think it’s been a long time since any of these “housewives” were brimming with hope and can do attitude unless it involves tearing one another down, or having one too many drinks from the illusive fountain of youth.

We are what we eat, what we read and with what we surround ourselves. I don’t know about you, but life’s too short to spend it on things that just fill me up without nurturing anything other than an idle curiosity about the bad behavior of others. Instead of consuming mindless filler, what if we look for ways to renew and strengthen ourselves each and every day? Even if it’s for five or 10 minutes a day, every day, what if we make, and take, time to go within ourselves and be still; to breathe and find our little voice and then think about what it’s telling us? Just start there. We don’t need a long list of New Year’s resolutions we won’t keep, just a promise to be still and breathe for five or 10 minutes a day.

All of us have lived through painful life lessons. Some of us are dealing with depression or that we have cancer, and we’re scared; we’ve lost a significant someone, or we’re wondering how to reinvent ourselves and become the person we’d hoped to be? With every thing you battle in life, start with the knowledge that you are loved by God, and you are made in His image. Regardless of where you are in life, He’s blessed you beyond reason. The other thing I want you to know is that you are important to me.

With this breath, and the next, I hope you'll take this opportunity to begin, again.

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