I dreamed last night I told Mayor Daley that I would pay more property taxes in order to provide hot water and shelter for everyone. (In the dream, the amount I paid was about half what it is in reality.)

I am a homeowner. I have a stake in the city. In the neighborhood. We have boxes on the front porch awaiting pick up by strangers who are moving. (One of the wonders of Craig's List.) The next-door neighbors are selling their house. I told them the boxes would be gone soon, that I didn't want to lower their property value. When I was in junior high, our principal said that if girls wore pants it would lower the property values. In eighth grade there was a protest. I didn't take part. I was too chicken. But a girl named W wore jeans, and in Mrs. F's math class she put her feet on the empty seat in front of her. Mrs. F jumped on it immediately: When girls wear pants they put their feet on the furniture. In school, the desks were always called furniture.

By high school we were wearing cut-off jeans and halter tops, though that principal put a stop to flip flops, then known as shower sandals. It was a safety issue. The principal liked to defy the school district and had a flowery sign over his office that said Love Room. Or something like that. There was a smoking area outside, which was considered progressive. No one brought up the health issue.

I remember a discussion about having police in the school. I don't know why it came up; maybe because drugs were found in lockers. I was on the student council and that was probably where we discussed it. Some of us objected (did I? I don't remember) and the counter argument was, If you're doing nothing wrong, why would it matter? And: If you're driving and you see a cop, what's your reaction? My reaction is I'd rather not see them. I tense up. I check my speed. And is that good or bad?

Now we have cameras at intersections to record erring drivers. When I lived in Miami, I remember there were police cameras on South Beach because there were so many muggings. This was when it was populated by frail, retired needle-trade workers with Yiddish accents. What does the city owe us and what do we owe the city? Chicago is like a nation-state. It could be very democratic, with 50 representatives on the city council. But I think a majority of them were appointed by the mayor. Meanwhile, I have not protested enough that yoga classes were discontinued a year ago at the park district when the teacher retired, and the district still hasn't found a new teacher. The park district is a public body that is supposed to be responsive to citizens. But the citizens needs to make themselves heard.

But what is property? Architects see buildings as containers for shapes. I don't believe exactly that property is theft, but most property in the US was originally ill-gotten. We feel that we don't deserve this big house. We also feel a responsibility to keep it up. It's about 110 years old and historic in a general way. We don't know its history. The headquarters at school is a mansion that came with a scrapbook about its history. It was built for the publisher of a long-dead newspaper and Will Rogers came there once to a party. When I went to the Millay Colony for the Arts, I saw that each person who stayed in a room wrote her or his name on the jamb. At another artists colony, Ragdale, the residents write notes in a notebook in each room. We have our say. We note where we were. What we did. I walk down the streets of Chicago thinking about what it looked like 50 years ago, a century ago. Some people go back further, and see prairie grasses and swamp where skyscrapers are now. (In French, gratte-ciel, sky scratcher--aggressive in both languages.) And part of everything growing around us, the trees and fertilized grasses and flowers, are tiny fragments of people who used to live around here. I assume someone somewhere has hypothesized about the process, about how long it takes for a body to decay in the ground, then become part of the atmosphere and material world. We bring dead flowers to decorate graves (we in general, not Jews) and then some caretaker takes them away. Jews leave stones, and eventually the stones become part of the earth and so on.

The Question of Subject

If this is a cancer blog, and moreover, a breast cancer blog, then it should be about breast cancer, should it not? But if it is a blog that reflects what it's like to have (and have had) breast cancer, and when your treatment boils down to taking a pill every night, and when you're not thinking about breast cancer 100 percent of your waking and dreaming hours, then does your blog need to be 100 percent about breast cancer? (It's not, has never been.) Do people come to a breast cancer blog expecting to read about Life With Cancer, and grow disappointed learning about Life With a New/Old House? Or is that the message itself: That after breast cancer, there's room for everything else in your life?

But you never forget it entirely. There's that missing breast on the left, for one, and the hair that's shorter than it was two years ago, and there are people who ask, How are you? and then, How ARE you? with that emphasis, that heaviness, as if trying to pry out a secret.

In the news conference I went to for Stand Up 2 Cancer, Elizabeth Edwards said that she felt something in common with anyone who's had cancer. And that's true. I feel the same--that we've gone to that place that used to mean (and still might mean) Death. And we've gone through the same baffling, often impersonal procedures at hospitals. (By talking to one another, we're reasserting our individualities.) Before I had breast cancer, I felt that everyone who had it was going to die before her time. Though rationally, I knew that wasn't necessarily so. I remember hearing about someone who had breast cancer and then seeing her, healthy-seeming, and wondering why there was no sign. Thinking she was faking it--it being her health.

I Have Been Breathing Tile

So now we are living in this old house that is older than many things in this world, a house that was standing probably looking much like it looks now (without the vinyl siding) when my grandparents were back in the shtetls of Slutsk and Pusvatyn and the other place that was a satellite of Kishinev. The famous and terrible Kishinev pogrom of 1903 had not yet taken place when this house was built. And supposedly, according to M the duct cleaner, no one has ever cleaned the ducts in all that time. I lived in the condo, also old, for almost 10 years and never got the ducts cleaned, though I thought about it, and my neighbors had it done. Last night I noticed that if you take off the grille (which is quaint and decorated and rusted) over the vent in the office, there's a breach in the duct, pocket of metal, with bits of tile and tile dust and gray grains of schmutz. And I had been breathing that??? I've been on prednisone and antibiotic since Saturday because I had a sore throat that turned into bronchitis.

Then I got the air duct cleaner guys to come over and they sucked out the particles opened all the vents and cleaned them. M the duct cleaner said that the pieces of tile came from the bathroom (the next room over) when the people before us replaced the tile with slate. Pieces of tile had come through the bathroom duct and were wedged in a little pocket that had formed in the seam of the metal duct. He got metal tape and sealed it so no more pieces of former floor could rise up. I felt so vulnerable, that dirt could fly right into the air here and I could breathe it and get worse and worse. And then I felt stupid because I'd known the ducts needed cleaning but I hadn't visualized what it really meant, that the air circulating around here was dirty, and it seemed so invisible and uncontrollable and impossible. I think they are clean now but the grilles are rusted and imperfect and I became afraid we had bought wrong, that we should have figured this all out beforehand. And then I went to yoga and while I was riding my bike east I thought, Why did we move three blocks west? It really is cooler by the lake and so here we are in the wrong house in the wrong place.

In the Obits

The Tribune's top obit today is of a woman born in 1914 in Chicago of Czechoslovakian immigrants. She had a lifetime of social work, both in the US and abroad, working with refugees. She graduated from Northwestern in sociology in 1935. (She graduated from high school at 16, but her father thought she was too young for college. I'm impressed that it sounds like he assumed she would go to college. So she and her mother traveled in Europe.) Just after the war ended, she went to Europe and worked with displaced persons in Germany, where she met and married an interpreter she worked with. He was a former member of the Polish Army who had been a prisoner of war. Her name was Helen Zilka Jaworski and she died at 93 of "natural causes," which sounds peaceful and is a euphemism for "the wearing out of parts due to old age." But don't we all die of natural causes, unless we're the victims of homicide, suicide or
accident? Isn't cancer a "natural cause," albeit one we would very happily call unnatural and say To hell with?

And if humans are naturally aggressive, isn't war a "natural cause"?

The other obit of note was for Leroy Sievers, who was born the year I was. He was an NPR commentator who had a series on "Morning Edition" and on-line about his colon cancer that returned as a brain tumor and lung cancer. We're told that he "covered more than a dozen wars" and that Ted Koppel wrote that Sievers' "battle with cancer... [was] the most important story of his life."

I wonder if Sievers would agree. Is it better to cover wars or your own body's deterioration? Which is more helpful to the world at large?

I knew about Seivers' blog and national commentaries and was envious.

The in-text links aren't working right. You can find the obits here:,0,225735.story

and here:,0,6433352.story

Link to Sievers' work on NPR:

--posted by Cancer Bitch

No, YOU move beyond cancer

Nota bene: a brief article in the New York Times Science section, "Having Cancer, and Finding a Personality," by Ruth Pennebaker. Her description of post-cancer malaise is right on.

"The last time I visited my oncologist after my treatments were over, I felt lost. The image that kept recurring in my mind was that someone with a gigantic pair of tweezers had picked me up, shaken me and tossed me back down. Now what?"


I had my own rimshot moments during treatment. Satire can be used to divert aggression; in my case, joking was more productive than punching a hole in the wall. During my last radiation appointment, the nurse gave me a going-away present: a videotape titled "Moving Beyond Cancer." I told her I'd really prefer it if she gave Cancer a videotape called "Moving Beyond Elisa."

Posted by The Fifty Foot Blogger

Hemmed In: a Note from Cancer Bitch

The Fifty Foot Blogger, you may have noticed, has been guest-blogging and has graciously assented to continue for a while. I will be poking my nose in during her guesting. Right now I am oppressed by my own lack of discrimination. We moved yesterday and I have an Office One and Office Two in our new place. Office One will be my quiet, non-machine office, with bookshelves (and a laptop, at times). Office Two will have printers and fax machine and phone, and right now has six four-drawer file cabinets and about 25 boxes of books, literary magazines, office supplies (including about 200 used file folders), old work (such as fiction written at grad school, 1981-83) and old notes and books from articles written (a box on sleep and sleep deprivation, from a piece I wrote a number of years ago). I cannot move around in this office because it is so full of boxes on top of boxes on top of file cabinets. I am hemmed in by my past and my inability to throw away, though I swear I have thrown out and given away many boxes and bags of stuff. I threw away my typed-up dreams from the 1980s, assuming they're too boring for even me to re-read. But do I throw away my first rejection letter from the New Yorker (with a hand-written note by Daniel Menaker)? I have my letters in files according to year. I received about 10 from Roger Angell before I received an acceptance, and then after that he sent me about 15 more rejections. Cancer Bitch is seeking permission from you, dear blog-reader, to throw out such letters. I asked a writer friend of mine for advice and she told me she and her husband keep all their letters, because they have a storage space. I refuse to get a storage space. I want to winnow and cut. I'm too old-fashioned to get a scanner and scan everything and put on disk. I want to be austere. But it is so difficult. When I got my port removed last year, I got to keep it and it's in a little plastic bottle. Do I throw that out? Much of my writing depends on the past, some of it on my personal past. I've written essays that quoted from notes I took while traveling, while listening to lectures and watching documentaries, so I'm loath to throw out my many notebooks. But at what point does keeping these notebooks become counter-productive because of their sheer number?

I will keep my copy of my bat mitzvah speech, of notes that I received from friends in junior high, of letters my father sent me. But my early drafts of stories that never turned out? Who needs them? Chapters that never worked from an unfinished novel that never worked? Who needs them? I just went to the old apartment to clear away some last detritus and found in the closet a birthday card I gave to L several years ago. I threw it out without much trouble. There will be other birthdays and other cards.

In a figure drawing class years ago our teacher had us sketch, then change seats. We each worked on someone else's drawing. How easy it was to erase and change someone else's work. It would have been easy to crumple up and throw away, too.

In the old days poets lamented that their names were "writ in water" (see Keats). Is our cyber-writing the equivalent, or does cyberspace make us immortal--but immortal among more cyberwords and cyber-writers than Keats ever dreamed of?

Breast Cancer Comics

The New York Times recently reviewed the graphic novel "The Bottomless Belly Button," by Dash Shaw. An astonishing 720 pages, the story follows an extended family as they react to the news that the grandparents are getting a divorce. There's a lot of buzz around "The Bottomless Belly Button;" New York magazine called it the "graphic novel of the year." And, there's just as much interest in the author and artist, 25 year-old Dash Shaw. For such youth, he's prolific, having already inked critically acclaimed "The Mother's Mouth," and several shorter works.

When I Googled him, I was surprised to see his name attached to a search result for "Breast Cancer Comics," from the web site Readers submit their stories, and Shaw (who looks about fourteen in his profile photo) interprets them in graphic form. Perhaps it was a good gig for a starving artist. I somehow have the feeling he's about to become too famous for this kind of work.

"A Week at the Beach, With a Divorce Imminent" Book of the Times. [Link]

Breast Cancer Comics [Link]

Dash Shaw's website [Link]

Posted by The Fifty Foot Blogger

Guest Blogger: The Fifty Foot Blogger

Greetings--I'll be guest-blogging here while Cancer Bitch moves to her new place. For the most part, these will be cross-posts in my own blog. However, if you find my meanderings amusing, you can read my earlier stuff at The Fifty Foot Blogger.

Last week, I had my first gynecological exam since I started cancer treatment. TMI, you say? None of you complained when I wrote about breasts.

I haven't had the best of luck with gynecologists. There was Dr. Shifty, at my old HMO, who constantly glanced around the room while I asked questions, as if seeking an escape route. Then, Dr. Gorgeous, who lectured me about birth control while he was down there. Uncomfortable. The last one, Dr. Soccermom, hurt me during the examination, and blamed me, saying I was "too tense." Pain does make me tense.

So, my expectations were low when I walked into yet another waiting room of OB/GYN practice; this time recommended by my internist. After filling out the new patient forms, I started to browse the magazine selection. They had a couple of obligatory copies of Parenting, but also a number of news magazines and, to my delight, the latest issue of ReadyMade. If you're not familiar with ReadyMade, it's the bible of hipster Do-It-Yourself-ers; sort of a combination Popular Mechanics/Good Housekeeping for Generation Y. It's a pretty unusual magazine to find in a doctor's office.

One of the big problems I've had with OB/GYNs in the past is the feeling that they're really OBs, and the GYN part is an afterthought. This was first time I didn't automatically feel like a second-class citizen for not being pregnant. Dr. Soccermom's waiting room was full of baby magazines, brochures about breast-feeding, and mini photo albums of infants she caught on their way out. I have nothing against babies; I actually was one, at one time. But how about a little photo album of women you've successfully guided through menopause--hmmm? We're probably not cute enough.

The new gynecologist, who I will now think of as Dr. ReadyMade, was wonderful! First, we met in his office to discuss any concerns, a pleasant alternative to having to ask questions while half-naked and on an exam table. During the examination, he told me what he was doing and took care to cause minimal discomfort. I don't say this about a lot of docs, but he's a keeper.

ReadyMade [Link]

"Gynecologists say the darndest things" Radar [Link]