Friday, November 21, 2008

My First Time (it's not what you think!)

While waiting in the chiropractor's office to have him work his magic on my aching back, I thumbed through a health magazine. On the last page was a reader-written essay about the first time something new was attempted for better health. At the end was an invitation for other readers to send in their 400-word "first time" pieces. So I sent in this:

Kiai!: How Donning a Karate Gi Rejuvenated Me
by Felicia Hodges

I’ve always been very physically active. In grade school it was kickball, tag and later, the middle school’s softball team (I played first base). As a freshman in high school, a few moths after watching my uncle in the NYC marathon, I decided to give the track team a try. I ran and jumped my way right into an athletic scholarship, seeing the US and earning a B.A. without any school loans hanging over my head after graduation.

Through career shifts, marriage, pregnancy and divorce, I kept competing. In July 2004, I retired from the sport so I could work on my master’s and still keep up with my then 11-yr-old son. A few days after I started graduate school in August, I found a pea-sized lump in my right breast.

Thanksgiving break was spent recovering from a bilateral mastectomy. In February, after watching my son do kata from the balcony of the dojo while trying to read my school assignments, I decided to take the sensei up on the offer to join the class. Since track had ended, I hadn’t even run to the refrigerator. I missed being active. I missed sweating.

And sweat, we did – thanks to the generous helpings of pushups, jumping jacks and ab work sensei dished out. At least that was familiar – unlike the stances, katas and punching/kicking drills. I felt like the world’s least coordinated person for quite a while (which sensei assured me was totally normal), but it felt really good to hit something. Plus we were encouraged to scream loudly while punching and kicking. Physically yelling while hitting a heavy bag proved to be pretty darn therapeutic - and a whole lot cheaper than psychotherapy.

Three weeks before my last radiation treatment, I entered my first competition, (I wore a hard foam protector to keep the radiated chest from getting hit). That did it: my passion for a new physical activity was ignited.

Next May, I will test for my black belt and close in on my five year “cancerversary”. Through all the physical changes breast cancer brought, karate was the one constant, proving that I may have had cancer, but cancer didn’t really have me because I could do stuff that I’d never even tried before my diagnosis. I’m so glad I donned a gi and decided to line up in the back of that class. Sweating is good for the soul.

Made it - in exactly 400 words...

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Pinkwash '08

With all the excitement over the election, I truly forgot to toss some confetti when November 1st - the date that marks the end of Breast Cancer Awareness Month - rolled around.

What's so bad about the pink ribbons, you ask? Nothing would be if awareness were truly the goal or if it was all that we needed (in reality, a cure would be nice). Sadly though, the pink that is seemingly everywhere from the end of September through October is sometimes just as much about the money raised for the corporations that design the products than making this cancer go away.

Last year, the product that really made me aware of the "pinkwash" was Campbell's Soup. My local Price Chopper supermarket had a big bin of pink-labeled cans near the front door with a sign inviting shoppers to "Help Find a Cure." Trouble was that no where on the cotton candy-colored labels was there any mention of how much money from the sale of each can was to be donated or where the money was going.

This year, it was the $400 pink Dyson vacuum cleaner I saw in Target that nearly sent me over the edge. I suppose in some marketing genius' mind, pink cleaning products promote consciousness about breast cancer, but I just don't see the connection. Since most women don't think that anything as bad as a breast cancer diagnosis will happen to them, pink ribbons may remind them to get their annual mammogram or do regular breast self-exams, but I doubt the thought washes over us while tidying up around the house.

To me, the real problem is that not everyone is truly aware of the wide swath of devastation this disease can leave in its wake. I lost my mom in '92 to this stupid disease and I still didn't really understand it until my own breasts fell victim 12 years later.

182,460 new cases of invasive breast cancer will be diagnosed in the US this year. That's close to 200,000 women faced with surgery, radiation and/or chemotherapy soon after hearing "It's cancer." Almost 41,000 American women will die from it in 2008 as well. That's a whole lot of families, partners, friends and neighbors who now must find a way to get through their daily routines without them. Since breast cancer is one of the most funded cancers, great strides have been made in early detection techniques and treatments in the past 10 years, but still people are dying. Treatments are wonderful – as is helping women find out they have breast cancer while it is still in its earliest, most treatable stages – but where the heck is the cure?

Think about it: if all the pink products that slap an awareness ribbon on their label actually donated a portion of their total proceeds to breast cancer research, this disease probably would have gone the way of the dinosaur by now. But so many of them either cap their contributions, give such a tiny percentage of each sale to the cause or give to organizations that have such high administrative overhead that only a tiny amount actually gets funneled to research and development for finding an actual cure.

Please, before you buy a pink feather duster or toss another container of yogurt or soup with a pink ribbon on it into your shopping cart, read the label to see how much of their donation – if any – will actually benefit women who are battling breast cancer or help ensure that a cure will be found someday soon. Unless it is a product you absolutely need, don't feel obligated to buy just because the label is the color of Pepto Bismol or the words "Breast Cancer" appear on the package. Instead, send a few dollars to local groups you know are helping women and their families (like Miles of Hope Breast Cancer Foundation) - and continue to pray that a cure for this stinking disease will be found before this little lady pictured above grows boobs.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Standing on the Verge of History

After almost two years of campaign stumping and speeches, Election Day is finally almost here. Wow...

New York is not one of the states that has early voting, so like everyone else in the Empire State, I'll head to the polls tomorrow hoping the lines aren't too crazy. As many are predicting the largest voter turnout in US History and some have waited on line for hours to vote early, I'm bringing a folding chair just in case.

No matter the final outcome, tomorrow will be historic. Never has there been an African-American president or a female vice president, which is definitely adding to the excitement. But none of it will matter if you don't get out and cast your vote. It's too important not to.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

My Visit to See Grandma

My grandmother will be 88 next month. She's spent the last 18 months in a nursing home in the Bronx after being diagnosed with dementia. Fiercely independent, she'd lived alone in the same a one-bedroom apartment in Harlem for over 50 years.

Last week, I got a call from her doctor that she'd fallen out of bed and broken her forearm. She had to be taken to a nearby hospital for x-rays and returned to the nursing home two days later. Today I finally got down to visit and she looked incredibly small and frail. Her speech is getting worse (she mumbles most everything she says) and she just seems to have lost her spunk. I don't know what to do with that.

My house is exactly 70 miles away from the nursing home. I'm only able to get down to visit about once a month. She's always happy to see me (although she calls me by my mother's name), but I really don't know much about her day-to-day in the hours I'm not there. Her best buddy is her roommate, Ms. Nancy, whose house my grandmother thought for the longest time she was actually staying in. I've thought about moving grandma to a nursing home upstate, but because she had adjusted and seemed comfortable, it didn't seem necessary. But now Ms. Nancy is in the hospital and has been for about a month and my grandmother just doesn't seem to be thriving like before.

Dementia is such an ugly thing, robbing its victims of their memories and even their words. I hate most that it seems to make its victims complacent; my grandmother and most of the other people on her floor seem totally oblivious to the lives they had before they had to pack up and move everything into a 10' x 20' room.

So what will the next visit be like? How long will it be before she no longer knows my son's name or even remembers me? Perhaps this is scarier for us - the family that knew her well before the brain synapses began to fail - than it is for her. We can kind of guess at what is coming. She has no idea...

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Is anyone else REALLY scared?

I have an IRA and I'm a bit worried. I also have some funds for my kid's college squirreled away and I'm terrified he may have to live at home until he finishes his master's degree.

Thankfully, retirement is about 30 years away for me (who would have ever thought I'd be writing a sentence like that?!), but unfortunately, in three short years, my son will be a freshman in someone's institution of higher learning. Thought I'd have at least that first year covered via the nice little 529 college savings program I've been dumping money in since my divorce 10 years ago ('cause Lord knows his lame-o dad isn't even thinking about how to pay for his first-born's education) - but now things aren't looking so good. Thanks, Wall Street.

The beauty about state college saving's programs is that the money can be withdrawn tax-free if used for education. That's the bad news, too. In other words, if I do what I REALLY want to do and take out every penny and put it in a nice, safe CD, I'd owe Uncle Sam tax on the interest earned. If I leave it in and Wall Street keeps doing the crazy dance it's done since September, there may not be anything left not to tax when Junior's (his name is actually Malcolm) tuition bill is due.

In theory, there is plenty of time for my IRA to rebound before I wave farewell to the world of work, but I barely even have 33 months for the college funds to earn back what was lost and grow. Do I dare continue to contribute at all? Should I take the remainder of what I was to contribute for 2008 and open that CD? CUNY is looking awfully good right now - and he doesn't even know what he wants to major in yet...

My 87-year-old grandmother lived through the depression and never had a bank account until about a year ago. She literally cashed her paychecks and paid all her bills in person or mailed in a USPS money order. I used to think that was crazy, but now I'm thinking it may not be such a bad idea after all...

Time's Been Up

Doesn't matter if it's Bill Cosby, President Trump, singer R. Kelly, producer Harvey Weinstein, editorial director Lockhart St...