My Cancer Story: The Circle


I’ve been touched by your comments and emails thanking me for my honesty in my cancer posts. Many of you wrote that I’m brave to share my story. Nah. I’m not really that brave; I just like to tell stuff.

But one aspect of the experience does feel extra-personal.

Within hours of my diagnosis, I saw a circle closing in around me. A real circle. No joke. No figurative talk. I saw it. Many times. It looked like the circle above.

The circle closed out everything in my future but the cancer. No new house. No grandchildren-to-be. No travels to Prague or Costa Rica. No finishing the novel my agent has been patiently waiting for.

The circle squeezed out bad stuff too, stuff not related to cancer. No thoughts of old hurts or unresolved issues. No worries about projects left uncompleted or what ifs looming ahead.

There was no space. The circle was that tight.


After my surgery, I heard good news. Really good news! The cancer had not spread. Within minutes, I saw the circle open up. Even now, I can close my eyes, put myself back in my hospital bed, and watch it grow.




For the first two or three weeks, only good drifted back into the circle. Then, as a bit of post-op funk sank over me, some negatives drifted back in too.

The other day at  a Duke alumni event, I met a wonderful cancer survivor. (I’m finding that all cancer survivors are wonderful, with stories to tell and intriguing lessons learned.) I told her about my circle. She nodded her head. “Yes,” she said. “I saw it too.”

Like the beckoning white light when we die, maybe circles represent some universal experience with the Big C.

But you know what?  I love round things like polka dots and happy faces and the moon and pie. But I don’t want to see a circle around my life again. Not a tight one, for sure, but not a bigger one either.

No circle, no black lines, letting stuff in or keeping it out.

No limits.

Just life.

Happy FaceThe American Cancer Society’s website has some  excellent resources on dealing with the emotional side of cancer. Check it out here.




Garden Blessings, a Cancer Diagnosis, and a Giveaway

Pink Zinnea

I’m a reluctant gardener.

Perhaps because I can only grow zinnias and marigolds.  For real. All other seeds fail me. Perennials, except for a few, refuse to reappear in the spring.

But this year the gardening muse took over, and I planted zinnias galore.

I even dragged pots out of our shed and created a porch garden of zinnias and marigolds.

Blooms abound.

Never have blooms looked more beautiful.

Because a month ago, I was diagnosed with endometrial cancer.

And the life that I sometimes grumped about and worried about and wondered about became the life I wanted to hold onto with every ounce of my being.

As surgery approached last week, an unexpected joy showered over me. The bold colors of my zinnias shouted, “Notice us!” And I did.

Pizza on a neighbor’s patio became the best I’ve ever tasted.

The riverwalk on our new trail in Hillsborough felt like a grand wilderness adventure.

I was scared and nervous, for sure, but this worrier took on a type of calm. Grace in its finest form.

I’m through with surgery. I need a few weeks to catch my breath. Then I’ll tell my cancer story.

Hope you’ll come along for the ride!

This morning, I was well enough to go into the garden and pick a bouquet of zinnias. Never has my garden been such a blessing.

I love you, zinnias!

Giveaway: Anthologist June Cotner is offering one reader a copy of her gorgeous new book, Garden Blessings: Poems, Prose, and Prayers Celebrating the Love of Gardening (Viva Editions, 2014).  For a chance to win, simply enter a comment  by August 15 saying you’d like to be the winner. Thanks, June!

Cover of Garden Blessings

Here’s what the publisher says about June’s latest collection:

Our gardens grow us, and this collection of readings takes us down a path of pleasure. The overriding intention of Garden Blessings is to provide a heartwarming, spiritually focused collection of uplifting prayers, prose, and poems that share a common joy and appreciation for the love of gardening and the many blessings that gardens bring to our lives. June Cotner, a best-selling inspirational author, has gathered a bounty of garden blessings here, offering gems of wisdom that remind the reader and gardener in all of us just how much we learn from our gardens.

Me again: You’ll want your own copy, and the book makes a great gift. Here’s the Amazon link.  I do think this is one of the loveliest book covers ever! I had fun photographing it a few weeks ago on an old pedestal that usually holds a stone frog in my garden.


Suntan: A Partial Grief Observed

Do you remember when you first heard that suntan was bad for your skin?

I was in my early twenties. I remember such sadness. Oh no!  No more tans?  No more baby oil?  No more covering record albums with aluminum foil to catch the rays in early spring?  No returning from the beach in August to praises of “You’re so tan!”

I tanned for a few more years. When I had my first patch of pre-skin cancer removed from my face, I got more vigilant with the sunscreen.

But I’m still sad. I miss those days of being pleased in the evening when the day’s latest tanning emerged on the skin. I miss putting out my forearm with a buddy to see who is tanner. I miss “Where you at the beach? You’re so tan.”

Or am I that sad? Remember how the sunburns felt?  Horrible.

Remember when the peeling started up on your nose?

Remember when a cloudy day at the beach was devastating news? My friend Mari Fran Miller said it to me thirty years ago: “You know, I’ve started to enjoy my vacations more now that I don’t worry about getting a tan. I can relax.”  She’s right!

I’m happy for the next generation. Those who are careful, as my girls  are, will probably look younger than I do as I approach sixty. At the moment, that sounds pretty cool to me.

What about you?  Do you miss the fun of getting a tan? Do you allow yourself a light one (as I do on legs and arms)? Any favorite sunscreens?

Sunbonnet Sue: And don’t you wish we could go back to the Sunbonnet Sue generation to see how those ladies looked at sixty?

My friend Marilyn Chinis gave me Sunbonnet Sue, above, a sachet that once belonged to her mom. Thanks, Marilyn!

 The lady below, Bertha Corbett Melcher, is known for her Sunbonnet Sue designs. She began by illustrating, The Sunbonnet Babies, published in 1900. The character was soon picked up for a primer series, and Sue began to appear on postcards, china, and quilts.


Guest Post: Instant Menopause and the Fighting Nun

A guest post from my friend Frances Wood, who writes that “she entered menopause earlier than most, and with a certain amount of Catholic drama…”

Imagine this…

You are 42 years old, recently diagnosed with a terrible disease, and you wake up one morning to find that all of your female parts are gone. As in Kaput! Over! Finished! Disappeared! You have a tight row of metal staples from navel to crotch that sort of looks like a zipper implanted into your skin. And while everybody around you is thrilled with the success of the surgery, all you can feel is…RAGE. Big time. Rage at anything, everything, everybody, from that first-year resident who woke you up at five a.m. because she has no life of her own, to that edge of a building outside your window that blocks all the sunlight. I mean, you HATE!

And one of the doctors is saying, “Hmm. Is there any chance she can have some HRT?”

That’s something for the whatever-committee to decide. In the meantime,  your anger spirals into the past and hooks onto the ONE PERSON who is the cause of all your misery: Sister Estelle Marie. Oh, yes! A true, wooden-ruler kind of nun who told you God is great and God is good, and oh, boy, do you have a thing or so to say to her!

So when the hospital chaplain stops by and asks, “Would you like to see a member of your faith?”, you say, “Get me a nun!” Because you want to fight! You want to fight with the god of your childhood, and who better represents him than Sister Estelle Marie?

They send you a nun. What you have forgotten – because, let’s face it, you’ve been a lapsed Catholic for decades – is that the religious have gone all new-agey. They don’t wear black habits anymore, or carry rulers, or even let you call them ‘Sister.’ This woman is not only stylish: she wants to be your friend; she wants to comfort you. Which entirely defeats your purpose. If this Karen, or whatever she wants you to call her, won’t let you fight back, then WHAT USE IS SHE?

A few weeks later you are still blaming Karen for having gone all nice – while, at the same time, trying to pull in that rage because you now know, with your slightly saner mind, that you are having an instant menopause, losing-all-your-hormones cold-turkey, sort of moment – when the UPS truck comes up your driveway and leaves a box on your doorstep. Your friend Joanne, a many-decades lapsed Baptist, has sent you exactly what you need. A fighting nun.

The Post’s Author:   Frances M. Wood is actually a very mild-mannered person who writes historical novels. You can meet her at

The Nun:  Frances writes that the Fighting Nun now “sits in my office and has my back.”

When Molly Was a Harvey Girl:  Frances Wood’s most recent novel has won many honors including Bank Street College of Education, Best Children’s Books of the Year 2011 and Notable Social Studies Trade Book for Young People 2011.

Booklist:  “The values of education, courage, and simplicity all come together in this delightful tale.”

Kirkus:  “…entertaining characters and a fast-paced plot will keep readers engaged.”