Sunday, June 13, 2021

Where to Find Me...

 I'll be continuing to blog and vlog away, but I'll mostly be at my author website, from here on out. You can check out my newest posts here.

Tuesday, June 8, 2021

The Art of Rejection

I'm really enjoying my new "walk and talk" vlog format, so I'm going to make a few more of these, hopefully one each week for the summer. This one focuses on three tips for dealing with rejections of any sort, but especially with writing submissions. 

Wednesday, June 2, 2021

Walk & Talk about #PitMad

Here's my second little "walk & talk" video about writing. This one is about writing events like #PitMad on Twitter. You can learn more about #PitMad here.
Link here if the video won't load.

Thursday, May 27, 2021

The Querying Journey

I had the idea of creating more of a vlog than a blog starting this summer, so here are the two parts of my first vlog attempt below (interrupted due to phone storage issues AKA having 8 zillion pictures of my kids). In it, I'm discussing my new adventure into the land of literary queries after a several-year hiatus. For my non-writer friends, querying is the process of reaching out to these gate keepers of the publishing world (AKA literary agents) to hopefully get your book noticed by the big name publishers. 

I have been writing A LOT lately, at odd hours of the day and night, when not working or spending time with my kids. And I wrote more than I could ever have imagined during cancer treatment last year. Hence, this new journey begins:

If the videos don't show up in your browser, you can try my YouTube channel:
Link to Video 1

Link to Video 2

Monday, May 17, 2021

The Power of Reading


Each year, when I ask students what sorts of things they like to read, some of them inevitably tell me, “I don’t read.” I’m going to make a bold statement here and say that most problems in our world could be solved if people at all ages would read more often. It may sound like I’m being dramatic, but I’m 100% serious! And I have scientific backing.

Reading improves fluid intelligence, which is the ability to think critically and to detect patterns. It also establishes additional neurological connections and shows a likely link between reading and significantly higher IQ scores. For children especially, reading can make a significant difference in their future ability to make valuable brain connections. When a child doesn’t read, it creates a vast gulf that the child will never be able to bridge as an adult.

It may seem obvious that reading makes someone more intelligent, but there are other differences between readers and non-readers. Countless studies have shown that not only does reading relax people and help them sleep better, it also makes people more empathetic. Reading fiction in particular has been shown to boost compassion and create a more charitable mindset. Naturally, having a world in which more people are empathetic and compassionate would eliminate countless problems that exist, such as bullying and discrimination, as well as build larger-scale philanthropy that could eliminate issues as complex as world hunger and cancer. There are also direct connections between reading and future career potential as well as reading and broader social skills. Reading basically makes you a superhero.

                These are all reasons why I get so passionate about reading! Clearly, reading is a big deal. Maybe it seems a bit extreme, but I’d argue that going without your daily dose of books, especially as a kid or young adult, can actually be more damaging to your health than a daily sugary soda.

                When I think about the power of reading, I consider my struggling students, especially the ones who need so much more support than I can offer during our individual meetings every week. I wonder how much of a difference it would make if society placed a higher value on reading, if every parent pulled a book out each evening before bed.

Friday, April 30, 2021

The Most Human Question


I think that anyone who is diagnosed with a serious illness will ask the question, “Why me?” Especially if the person is young, or if it’s a particularly debilitating illness, it seems all the more frustrating: Why me? What did I do wrong? How did I bring this on myself?

            I was told (immediately after diagnosis by the doctor who called me with the news) that there was nothing I could have done to cause (or prevent) this cancer. Others reinforced this idea, as well as the fact that there was nothing I could do to stop it. Without medical intervention, of course. However, it’s almost impossible not to question. It’s human nature to be curious. We need to know the answers; we need to know the why. I felt like I’d been cursed with a disease out of the blue; there had to be a reason. 
           I looked for anything linked to decreasing your breast cancer risk, and I’d already been doing all of it. I’d breastfed, exercised, didn’t smoke, and had a healthy BMI. For several months every year, I eat organic vegetables straight from my own garden and from the farmer’s markets in town; I was perplexed as to how I could find food any fresher or healthier than that. Still, I got cancer.

So, I looked up every known factor that could have led to an increased risk of breast cancer. Not a single one applied to me. Nada. I didn’t have even one risk factor, yet I still got cancer.

Doom-scrolling one day, I saw a message on a cancer support website that “Cancer doesn’t care”. The article described so many people who lived healthy lifestyles but who were still diagnosed with cancer at young ages. There were vegans, fitness instructors, marathon-runners…pretty much anyone you would imagine to be the last person on earth to be diagnosed with cancer. It was disturbingly comforting because it meant I wasn’t the only one that felt unfairly targeted by this disease. These people were healthier than me! They’d done all the right things, like me-- quite frankly, way better than me-- and they still weren’t out of danger. Still, it was a conflicted, confusing feeling that left me frustrated.

Part of the frustration was not having any answers. When I finally did get some sort of answer, it took me in an unexpected direction: I had a CHEK2 genetic mutation. The CHEK2 gene typically helps with DNA repair; in my case, at any time, some event could trigger my mutation and this gene would then choose to not repair my DNA and instead give me cancer. (Note that my degrees are in writing and teaching, not in genetics, so I may be missing some crucial details, but still-- who gave this gene so much power? Did nobody quality check the CHEK?) Unfortunately, genetic mutations are one of the few risk factors that people have absolutely no control over. And so, alas, I did have a risk factor, but one that I couldn’t change. The CHEK2 mutation is thought to lead to a 20-25% increased risk of breast cancer, as well as an increased lifetime risk of colon and possibly other cancers (more research is needed). It’s less common than the BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations, which carry a greater lifetime risk of breast cancer and are more well known. Still, known genetic mutations are only the cause of 5-10% of breast cancers! (Crazy, I know.) Researchers suspect there are more mutations that simply aren’t yet known, but there is still a whole lot of mystery in the cancer world.

I saw this firsthand in my Young Survivor Coalition discussion group the other day. (We’re a group of women who were diagnosed with breast cancer under age 40.) The women were discussing the idea of stress or trauma as possible causes of cancer. Some of the women seemed to find comfort in this possibility; again, I think about that natural human tendency to need a reason for why bad things happen. Still, most of these ideas regarding stress were dismissed or disproved; we know that there are other causes of cancer out there, but we simply don’t know enough about genetics or all the possible environmental risk factors at this time. Maybe someday oncologists really will have all the answers; for now, they are well-educated guessers. (I mean that in the nicest way, of course.) They use the evidence available to make the best predictions possible, but it seems the real reasons behind breast cancer are still more murky gray than black and white.

As I continued to question why myself and these other young women were diagnosed with cancer seemingly out of the blue, I realized that asking myself these questions wasn’t going to get me anywhere. I could take myself on a downward spiral asking why bad things happen to good people, but I needed to focus my attention in a positive direction.

I felt more motivated to try to do something, even if all I could do were seemingly tiny things. Could I be positive influence on my kids and students? Of course. Could I try to bring joy and laughter to other people? Certainly. Could I donate a little time or money to others? Sure. Could I write something that makes a valuable impression on someone, even inspires them? I hope so. I considered what gifts I was born with and focused on how I should use them. Maybe I could even join my gifts together with others and make a greater difference in this crazy world. 

Maybe we don’t need an answer for our hardships; we need to create our own reason for getting through them. We need growth even when life forces us through regression. To me, going through cancer was a little like being a phoenix: I had to go through the fires of treatment, but I could still be reborn from the ashes.

Thursday, March 18, 2021

All the Small Things: Life Lessons from a Survivor During a Pandemic

Last weekend marked one year since the original date of a concert I was going to attend with my youngest sister to celebrate being halfway done with chemotherapy. The concert was cancelled abruptly a couple days beforehand as everything began closing down (and has since been postponed two other times). I assume at some point, we'll get to go see the band play, although it's becoming more difficult to picture the packed Target Center. It's funny to think that if I'd bought tickets for just a slightly earlier date, we may have actually seen them last year.

Those first few weeks of the shut down last year, I remember feeling very oddly like I was in a movie. Specifically, a zombie movie. (Yes, that's right.) It may be because Zombieland: Double Tap was the last movie Eli and I saw in a theatre, but I swear for a while, the combination of my body falling apart from the chemo and the news making me feel like the world outside was falling apart had me peering out the windows like I was anticipating a hoard of monsters to come rushing toward our front door.

We never needed to barricade our door, though we did need to turn the news off after a while. Life went from shock to surrealism to something maybe akin to acceptance, and we kept moving along. There's a lot of nostalgia out there right now, but I feel like that can get in the way of growth sometimes. I'm sure some probably feel that they changed or grew (or admittedly, regressed) in some way this last year, and I think we can take a lot of what we learned to make things better. 

Especially as a kid but even as an adult, I used to picture life as a series of boring moments until something big and exciting would happen: holidays, large gatherings, a family trip somewhere, a friend's party. I would always find myself counting down the days until the next exciting *big thing*. I mentioned waiting for that concert with Andrea. When that was cancelled, I thought I needed something else to celebrate: I planned to visit some friends and have a night on the town! Then bars and restaurants shut down, and I needed a new plan again. Everything kept getting foiled until I ended up... like, simply toasting my husband with a beer at our kitchen table. I remember being so frustrated last March: wasn't it bad enough I had cancer and had to go through all this awful treatment-- now I couldn't even have any fun? But then I realized I had to switch my thinking around. It took a little time, but I started to really appreciate all of life's little boring moments. Honestly. 

Of course, it was difficult to have three small kids at home when I was going through all the cancer stuff. Really, though, it was a blessing in disguise. Little kids have such a unique way of looking at the world. They see the simplest things as wondrous. Something like reading a favorite bedtime story or sitting outside enjoying the sunshine on your back feels special, almost sacred. I've watched my kids be amused by an ant crossing a beach blanket or the sound of a leaf underfoot. When you pause like a child and live fully in the moment, it's actually difficult to be bored. I still love being over-productive, but I started to really enjoy all of the ordinary, seemingly boring days. We took little walks as a family and did chores together. I asked my toddler what he was building with blocks and we've helped each other design a bunch of different "robots". I asked my 6-year-old to pick out a book for us to read together, and he now brings home a few of our favorite series each week from the school library. The baby and I spent (and still do) a lot of time admiring the different birds eating in our feeder and our chickens in the backyard.

I think joy in the ordinary things is probably three parts living the moment, one part empathy, because you have to occasionally embrace empathy to enjoy something a small person wants to do that you may find dull. For instance, reading "Mighty, Mighty Construction Site" for the hundredth time with my two-year-old is not exactly thrilling to me as an avid reader, but when I see his eyes light up, I make the truck noises and bounce him along to the rumbling construction work. He is having his best moment, so that can also be my best moment. 

This past year, so much interaction has moved online. I've seen a lot of people argue, grow bitter, or belittle others. It was hard to see society seemingly growing more distant and hard-hearted, especially when I felt like I was moving in the opposite direction. Talking to other survivors, I've found a common thread: cancer seems to make a person more empathetic, as you can suddenly relate to emotional, physical, financial, etc. pains of so many others. But of course you don't have to go through cancer to feel empathy. When we have our "keyboard warrior" weapons out, it's easy to say things we wouldn't in person. 

Still, it doesn't have to be that way. I've looked more carefully at some of my students' emails this year, especially ones that I would be quick to consider "rude" in previous years. Tone is tough online, and everyone is going through something weird and difficult; it isn't that hard to think it through and be more understanding. We've heard it a lot, but it still applies: walk a mile in someone else's shoes. We don't always all agree, but taking the time to listen can go a long way to understanding. I've always thought I was a good listener, but lately I've been doubling down. I'm shy around new people, and I've wondered in the past if that makes me less approachable, but this year I've found myself just being myself a bit more wherever I am: in my virtual classroom, at the doctor's office, online-- asking people how they're doing and sharing something that I hope makes them laugh. I'm appreciating the beauty in everything small, from acts of kindness to simple conversation.