I've been thinking a lot about what gets us through times of illness, loss, and personal crises. In reading this book aloud to my husband--Don't Panic: How to Keep Going When the Going Gets Tough, by Maureen Pratt--I am reminded of how we survived crises as a family and how those strategies can help me crawl through the remaining weeks of chemo. This is my open letter summarizing what I have learned, and I hope it can help anyone in crisis or starting chemo.


--We had a number of rituals when the kids were younger: take-out pizza on a quilt in front of the TV, watching movies. No problem if you dropped things or got grease on the quilt. The looser rules around eating and the pleasure of casual pizza took us through some difficult days.

-Another ritual we had was cosying up on the sofa with big bowls of ice cream to watch "The Simpsons."  Crazy laughter, Bart, and the sweet fat of desert helped us through one child's serious illness.  It's the little things that get you through.

What things which worked in the past can you apply to your life now; what can you let go of?

Small Tasks:

As my chemo got harder and my ability to bounce back (hell, I'd settle for crawl back) took longer, I worried about how little I was contributing to the household. I used to be the energizer bunny: meeting friends, shopping, gardening, attending church, writing, cooking, and more. No longer possible! I learned to set the timer for 5 or 10 min. and plan on doing only one task. I could perch on a stool and scrub out the sink, or peel carrots to steam for supper. I could begin a blog post while sitting down, not worrying about finishing. When you measure out your life in teaspoons, this is a source of confidence. Forget big accomplishments and who you used to be: set the bar way, way lower.

Can you allow yourself the mercy of doing and expecting less?

Instagram & Pinterest:

--I am not kidding: social media got me through hard days, even when in bed after surgery. I could scroll through my iPhone, answer emails, look at new photos, and keep up with friends on Facebook. This kept me connected to my world. And when I was able to creep around my kitchen and make rice pudding to die for, I could post it on Instagram and feel proud.

--On days when chemo addled my brain  (some research from the University of Rochester indicates that "chemo brain" may occur because the toxic chemicals may shut down production of new brain cells), I could curl up under a blanket and look at Pinterest. It kept hope for the future alive--someday I'll make that cilantro/lime chicken; someday I'll toss a scarf around my neck like Kate Middleton; someday I'll paint again. Sherry Terkel complains about social media not being "real contact," but when you have dropped out of your life and world, it damn all helps.

Can you let go of the opinions of others, even experts, to craft a reduced life which works and brings some joy?

My Family:

--People don't always know how much tiny interactions mean to us. When my second adult child texted me about trying to feed their cows apple slices by hand, I got a good laugh. At night, if nausea made it impossible to sleep, I knew I could text this dear person, for they would be awake at 2:00 a.m. A response in the dark night made me feel less alone.(I was not about to wake my husband!)

--When my son texted me pictures of their races (both he and his wife are ardent marathoners), their cute dog, and the latest delivery from Blue Apron, this took my mind off my troubles. They had lives, and one day soon I would too.

--My two brothers stayed connected with me in ways which warmed my heart and sustained my soul: they emailed, phoned, sent gifts, visited, and assured me of their support and love.

--I can't say enough about my dear husband of almost 49 years. When we drove down to the hospital for my infusions, he could always make me laugh. Or he'd slide the Mariah Carey CD in so we could sing, "Jesus! Jesus! Oohhh, What a Wonderful Child!" Don't be afraid to rest on the support of your close loved ones; they are a raft in hard times.

Can you ask family to contact you more, telling them how much it lifts your spirits?


Those who know me know I pray a lot. Sometimes those prayers resemble Annie Lamott's, helphelphelp and thankyouthankyouthankyou.  I used a variety of prayer tools during surgery and chemo:

--The Rosary was really helpful when my brain was clouded by chemicals. The serene, known repetition of the Hail Mary's grounded and calmed me.

--Any daily scripture readings can be marvelous. I used "Give Us This Day," Daily Prayer for Catholics. When I couldn't get to church, I could follow the readings and feel I was still part of the liturgy and worship.

--SacredSpace.ie is an internet site run by the Irish Jesuits which offers readings, reflections, meditations, and commentary. Really useful.  If you don't have one already, developing a daily habit of reading Scripture and praying is a life raft.

Can you take the first step towards beginning a prayer life, even if you are not quite sure about God? Helphelphelp is a good place to start.


Though all the nature you may see is a plant in the window or pictures of the Brooklyn Botanical Garden on your iPhone, go for it. Recent research in the NYTimes Well Blog shows that even looking at photos of greenery can boost your mood and connection. We were made, after all, to inhabit a garden.

--When I recently hit bottom, feeling that health was a never-to-be-attained state of being, I kept walking with a cane on our deck. Probably the chemo and some depression made me sense I was "seeing through a glass darkly," and no face-to-face either, sister. I peered through a dusty window at the world and felt--nothing. Then I looked at the stone wall below at a chipmunk frisking about, tail twitching. For a moment it looked up at me as if to say, "WTF? What is this huge thing?" Then it whisked between two stones, disappeared, and somehow the glass broke, the dusty panes crumbled, and I felt joy again. Praises be.  Never underestimate the power of something living to bring you back to life again.

Make time to be outdoors, even if that means sitting still on a chair and watching the leaves come out or the birds perch in the branches.


Many friends from church and my Writers' Group were delicate and respectful about being in touch with me, usually by email. By keeping in touch, my writer friends gave me the sense I had not actually dropped through a stage trap door and disappeared. (You know who invented this nifty device? The Jesuits!)

--Phone calls were welcome but even now, anything longer than 10 minutes exhausts me. I don't have the spoons for more. If you don't know this apt metaphor for chronic illness, check out:  www.butyoudontlooksick.com. Try connecting to the community of "spoonies" who understand what you are going through and can offer helpful hints re. makeup, wigs, energy loss, and recovery.

Consider that having cancer is actually a form of disability, and you need to care for yourself as if you were disabled.

And Last But Not Least, Amazon.com:

I am lucky to be married to a still-working man with a decent salary, so I was able to order many chotchkies on my favorite site.

--This ranged from: eyebrow tint gel; good creams for chemo-stressed skin; v-necked shirts for chemo infusions; black church hats to make me feel dashing; fuzzy warm tights for hard days; and Kindle books of a gentle nature, like the "Miss Read" books.  Be protective of what you read and watch: I found any TV violence made me ill, and I stopped reading the NYTimes for awhile.

It took me time to learn that what I put into my mind affected how my body felt. Surround yourself with nourishing things for now.

You will have your own strategies for coping:
you have more inner resources than you know, and going through a crisis will strengthen you. It is not fun, but you will be changed forever. And, as a humorous minister friend of mine used to say, "Here comes another f...ing blessing!"


  1. Annie - you are such an inspiration! And that picture of the little boardwalk through the garden will get me through almost anything in the future.

    I've never been through anything so horrible, thank goodness. But I remember when Eleanor was a newborn, and I couldn't seem to get my act together to do more than feed (the baby), change (the baby), bathe (the baby), and sleep (you know who). I would have a tiny list of things to accomplish, like empty the dishwasher, or do a load of laundry. At the end of the day I never finished the list - I was lucky if I did one thing. I was so distracted with all the new tasks of mothering that I couldn't seem to do anything else. When I forgave myself for being a derelict housekeeper (but a good mother), it got easier. It also got easier when she slept through the night!

    Much love,


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