Archives for category: Mindfulness

Last night I had one of those dreams where the setting kept changing. First, I was in a university marching band, practicing on the football field. Then I was sitting at a desk in a classroom. After that, I was attending a reception on a boat. Even though the setting kept changing, there was a story line that ran throughout the dream. I met Terri Gross, of the interviewing radio show, Fresh Air.

I really like Terri Gross’ interviews so I was excited to meet her. The reason we were meeting is that I had written her about my blog. In the classroom, I was telling the other students what I would say to Terri, if I were to meet her. And then she walked onto the boat with a container full of elegantly decorated cupcakes. Terri explained that she had made them and that they were leftover from a wedding she’d attended earlier that day.

“I got your letter”, she said.

“I read your blog,” she said.

“It’s not funny.”

In my dream, the only part of my blog that existed were my earlier days of blogging, when I was going through the acute phase of breast cancer assessment and treatment. I used a lot of humor in my writing then. Terri was telling me (I could read her mind in my dream) that cancer is not funny.

“I thought it was hysterically absurd”, I explained.

The dream ended with her giving me the last of a special flavor of cupcake, which was nice,  especially since I am unable to eat wheat during my waking hours. The fact that it was a broken piece of cupcake with no frosting shows once again that even in my dreams, my fantasies fall short.

Humor was one of my ways of dealing with a very stressful time in my life. I still use it.  I am typically able to laugh at the ridiculous aspects of life. However, I find myself relatively humorless these days. I am frequently thinking, “That’s not funny.”

Over a year ago, Donald Trump announced his candidacy for President of the United States. A number of friends on social media thought this hilarious because it seemed so preposterous. I wrote, “That’s not funny. That’s terrifying.”

Admittedly, I’ve laughed at a few things, mainly extremely well-done Saturday Night Live skits and late night t.v. bits. But otherwise, I mostly avoided memes, because they weren’t funny to me. Many of them were mean spirited. Donald Trump is an extremely sad, insecure, and cruel person. To nurture my own compassion helps me distance myself from the hate vortex he is stirring up.  I have brought him to mind during meditations, wishing him well, wishing him joy, all with the purpose of cultivating compassion and acceptance. The Christian version of this approach is “Love your enemies.”

It is really really hard to do this but I keep trying. Some weeks ago, I saw a video of the Dalai Lama talking about Donald Trump. He made fun of Trump’s hair! I thought to myself, “That’s not funny.” I have thought back to that film and realized that this is really a mark of how stressful this election has been to a lot of people. Even the Dalai Lama took a cheap shot.

Perhaps having judgmental thoughts about the Dalai Lama’s short-comings in compassion is a good signal to me that I am taking life too seriously, so seriously that I am causing myself suffering on top of real pain.

We are all doing our best in difficult and uncertain times. In about two days, there will be more certainty, one way or another.

Peace,

Elizabeth

P.S. If I have another dream with cupcakes, I am taking a whole cupcake complete with elegant frosting. Hear that, dreaming part of my brain?

Last week at the U.S. Presidential debate, I saw a women interrupted 51 times in 90 minutes by one man. I hate being interrupted. Actually, some interruptions are fun, the kind that you exchange with a friend with whom you share a great deal of empathy and can finish eachother’s sentences. Those interruptions show the strength of connection and intensify it. The interruptions I hate are the ones that change the subject, argue, and contradict. Repeated interruptions are like a salvo of little assaults that compromise one’s ability to share thoughts and feelings.  Interruptions are jarring and for me, they take me away from myself, at least where I was and where I wanted to go.

For many breast cancer patients in the U.S., October, “Breast Cancer Awareness Month” is an unwelcome interruption. Many people are active in advocacy for breast cancer research as well as for increasing access to quality healthcare. These are critically important concerns. Then the pink tsunami comes in and interrupts with new messages, one of using a disease as a marketing tactic and wrapping it in “awareness” a construct, which is vague and inoffensive. For those of us who do think about the word, awareness, thinking, is not enough. Awareness solves nothing once everyone is made aware and nothing else happens.

Breast cancer itself, was a major life interruption. I was 46, going about my middle-aged life assuming that my only health issues were that I was overweight and not exercising enough. Bam! Cancer! There were two years of starts and stops. Cancer treatment brings many interruptions.

Those of you who are regular readers of this blog know that I strive for integrity in my life, the sense that the parts of my life contribute to my whole self, in a way that makes sense. This contributes to a sense of balance. There is a teaching in mindfulness that the past, present, and future are all part of one’s being.

I continue to accept cancer as part of my past, my present, and my future. Even if I never have a recurrence, the knowledge of the possibility is still there.  Cancer is part of me but not all of me.

Watching the debate reminded me that the best way to handle an interruption is to keep going instead of just stopping and let the interruption take over.

Life interrupts, keep moving. You may need to make course corrections but you are still going forward.

Today is International Peace Day. I think a lot about peace and I try hard to cultivate it within myself as well as to be a peaceful participant in the world around me. The degree of success varies but it is rare that a day goes by without my being mindful of my intent.

I have not written as frequently as in the past, in part, because my mind is fragmented. My emotions are fragmented. The world is not making sense. There are many things going on but they are all getting wrapped up literally and metaphorically in our U.S. Presidential election. It is white male heterosexual privilege against everyone else. We have a major presidential candidate with no experience who is viable just because he is white, heterosexual, powerful, and more importantly, an explicit spewer of hate and selfishness. When he cheats, he is savvy. His exploitation of people and resources makes sense because he is the right sex, orientation, and color to dominate others.

Meanwhile, we have a very competent woman running for president with decades of experience who manages to get things done despite the fact that she’s been held to a level of scrutiny that arguably no other candidate has ever faced. Her crime? She’s made mistakes. Women are not allowed to make mistakes. They are allowed to be perfect mothers or to serve men.

Meanwhile, African American people, some children, are being murdered by police. No, this is not new. What is relatively new is that the incidents are now filmed and even when they can be viewed, many white people still come up with reasons why the person, often unarmed, sometimes with their hands-up, deserved to die.

Meanwhile, an African American football player decides to stop standing for the National Anthem at football games. There is strong backlash against this kind of “disrespect” to our country as well as to our military. This is a peaceful protest by a man who belongs to a race that has been owned, systematically oppressed, and clearly shown on video, hunted. It is 2016. This is still happening. We have a major presidential candidate who is whipping up hatred for every “otherized” person. People, what are YOUR PRIORITIES? Respecting the flag or not killing people?

Meanwhile, nearly half of the homeless youth in the U.S. are LGBT. LGBT youth, more generally, are subject to a high incidence of sexual and physical assault, drug/alcohol use, and suicidality. This is all because we believe that not being straight or cisgender somehow threatens our safety.

Meanwhile, immigrants, potential immigrants, or anyone who resembles an immigrant from a non-European country, are being treated like terrorists, despite research evidence pointing to the opposite. Immigrants, by and large, are hard-working people. Their children, on average, engage in significantly less crime and drug use than U.S. born white youth.

Meanwhile, I was at home yesterday when my husband received a text from a friend, who referred to him as “a girl” as a joke. My tolerance for this kind of sexism is low. I told him that it was a misogynist joke. He disagreed and his feelings were hurt. Both men are good and decent men but I was taken aback that my husband defended the joke and acted like I was overreacting. My reaction may have been stronger than usual but that is only because it is exhausting and unhealthy to be in a constant stage of outrage over the insidious and outright violent oppression in our country and world.

I know that I can best advocate for peace, when I have more myself. That does not mean not being angry, afraid, or in grief for some very hateful forces in our world. But it does mean balancing them with the good that exists around me.

In about an hour I am going to the Frye Museum in Seattle where there is a sitting meditation every Wednesday. That will help as will meeting my friend, Nancy, there.

I wish you all peace in your hearts.

 

On May 25, 2012 I walked into the Swedish Cancer Institute for the very first time.  I had learned of my breast cancer diagnosis the day before and I was there along with my husband and my friend, Nancy, for a consultation with the physician who would perform my first three breast surgeries, two lumpectomies followed by a right-side mastectomy.

I remember a few things from that morning. One of the strongest memories I have is a feeling of surprise when the physician’s assistance asked me to step on the scale for my weight. To me the word, “consultation” meant “talking” and that’s what I had expected. To relieve the tension, I joked, “I have to get weighed? That’s worse than having cancer!”

Granted, I was joking but as you know jokes come from some where. Who among us have not felt defined by a number, our age, our weight, our grades, or our annual income? Most of us have at one point or another, defined ourselves this way.  And the definitions can come with a great deal of negative judgment.

As a researcher and clinician, I also know that numbers can serve as useful data. There are two properties of measures that are important in yielding meaningful data. One property is the validity of the measurement tool. A valid measure actually measures what it is intended to. When I stand in front of the ruler on the wall of the doctor’s office, the ruler actually measures my height. However, not all measures are valid at all. For example, when I walk out the door in the winter time it sometimes “smells like snow”, meaning that I am detecting something in the air that to me is the odor of snow.  This predictive measure, as it turns out is not very accurate. It is not a valid measure of snow potential. I don’t even know what I am perceiving that makes it “smell like snow”.

The scale can be a useful measure. But is it a valid measure of value as a person? No, a scale, a good one anyway, is a valid measure of weight. It is not a valid measure of general health because general health is not defined by just body weight. It can be a factor in health but it is not all-encompassing.

Just like people say, “age is just a number” it can be tempting to deal with the judgment that comes with weight and just conclude that “weight is just a number”. This implies that it has no meaning or usefulness.

My weight has been creeping up steadily over the past year. I am almost to the weight that I was before I lost my last 40 pounds, nearly 4 years ago. Based on the way my clothes fit, I can tell that I am not as large as I was at that time, I assume because I am more muscular than I was then. But I am noticing that I am able to wear less and less of my wardrobe. I’ve gotten noticeably larger.

I did a great deal of work on my body image when I was going through cancer treatment. I learned to appreciate what my body does for me. I have a positive body image. I feel strong. But I also know that having had estrogen and progesterone responsive breast cancer that it is important that I maintain a healthy amount of body fat. Right now, it is clear that I have too much.

I’ve known this for awhile. Behavior change, developing new habits, and re-developing old good habits is really difficult. Every once in awhile I get to a point at which it seems harder to continue doing what I am doing than motivating myself to change. Last week, I asked my husband to start going to Weight Watchers meetings with me. I had been doing their online program  on and off for the last 10 years. Since I have not been following the program for awhile, I thought going back to meetings might be helpful. My husband has been having a lot of back problems and I thought that his losing weight might be a positive for him, as well.

He agreed. We went to our first meeting the next day, which was last Sunday. Three days down, many to go.

Measures can help guide me to follow my intentions and commitments in life. They don’t define my worth.

 

I am struggling with our world, especially my own country. The Republic National Convention just finished yesterday. Last night, reality television star and real estate mogul, who spews obvious lies and naked hatefulness, accepted the nomination for President of the United States. Every day since his campaign was announced, it has been like waking up in a world with rules and structures that I can’t understand. And then there are the terrorist acts abroad as well as the acts inflicted on our own citizens due to institutionalized racism.

These are not the only problems in the world or in my personal world but they weigh very heavily on me. This morning, I woke up after a series of nightmares. I could feel my heart beat racing. It was tangible. I could not only feel it from within, but it was vibrating my fingers, held over my chest.

I did not want to get out of bed today. I felt unmotivated, scared, and sad. I am not depressed or suffering from an anxiety disorder but I have the sense of light fog and quivery-ness that are cues for me to engage in self-care. So I got up, got dressed, and walked outside.

It had rained all night. The air was heavy but cool. It was cloudy, but I could see lightness behind the clouds, the kind of lightness that suggests a sunny afternoon to come. I remembered to bring my camera. The light was not that great, but I took my photos, anyway. It is hard not to appreciate summer flowers, close up. The dahlias are in bloom. The sunflowers are at their peak.

I often let my mind wander and try to stay in connection with my senses when I walk. I find that instead of feeling, thinking, or sensing less, I feel, think, and sense more. I have a wide variety of experience on my walks and this is very grounding to me even though some of the thoughts and feelings I experience are troubled. Mindfulness is not about blocking out. I continue to learn that it is about being open and to experience life in a way that is real but does not produce suffering.

As I was walking along the sidewalk in my neighborhood, there was a tree branch within reach. It was one of our wonderful evergreen trees, the branch of a hemlock. They have downward pointing boughs that are soft and flexible. I reached my hand up and softly grabbed it. It was still wet from the rain. In touching it, the newness, life, and health were tangible. It filled me with calm.

With just a moment of full engagement, I felt reconnected with what is beautiful.

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Last night I attended my daughter’s choir concert. One of the songs they performed was 2014’s, Shut up and dance (with me). It’s a catchy song with multiple messages, both literal and figurative. I’ve been thinking about it since last night. It was part of my meditation during my walk today.

The message I have been meditating upon is, “Get out of your head and engage with me. Engage with my humanity.” Yeah, I know. That’s kind of a stretch. But hey, this is what mindfulness does for me when I examine my thoughts and thread them together with my experiences.  It has meaning and usefulness for me.

There has been a great deal of human engagement weighing heavily on my mind.  It is the engagement that results in stalemate, hatefulness, paralysis, and polarization. It is human engagement without the recognition of humanity. There is violence in my country that is specifically targeted toward underrepresented populations fueled by institutional racism, institutional sexism, xenophobia, and institutional homophobia. There is violence in my country due to suicide. There is violence in my country due to accidental shooting deaths by children who gain access to firearms.

It is also the presidential election season in the U.S.  People choose a candidate. Passions often run high. That is normal for a major election season. But this is not a normal election season. This is a season during which a reality t.v. star is a major presidential candidate and he is running on a platform so filled with hatred that even members of the party he is representing is having trouble coming together to support him. It is an incredibly stressful time for our country as well as the fact that the world is watching, helplessly, contemplating the possibility that an unqualified person who spews hate will be the head of one of the most powerful countries in the world.

I could tune all of this out. I could avoid reading any news. If I did, I would not be living a true life. I would be living in denial. I could also get myself very involved in all of this. Read the news constantly. Ruminate. Argue with people. The latter is what I have been doing and it is also not a true life, because the ball of anxiety, sadness, and anger I feel is making it harder to appreciate and engage in the positive aspects of my world. When I am out of balance either, too much or too little, I am prone to black and white thinking. That is not the world in which I actually live.

I try really hard to engage respectfully with people with whom I disagree about these subjects. It is difficult. I have only two or three friends on social media who engage in discussion and do so in a respectful fashion. I don’t get a lot disrespectful or judgmental comments. When people engage in that type of behavior, I either say something or ignore it, depending on what I judge to be the more effective response at the time. I do, however, find myself in discussions, which although civil, just don’t go anywhere. We just each repeat our position in slightly different words, even after it is clear that each of us has had the opportunity to consider the other viewpoint. When I am most mindful, I recognize this and say something along the lines of, “I’ve had an opportunity to consider your viewpoint. I still don’t agree. Peace.”

Today, I witnessed a rather remarkable exchange between a Facebook friend of mine and someone with whom she had grown up with but not seen for 45 years. One of the things I admire greatly about this friend is that she expresses her viewpoints in a respectful, compassionate, and well informed way. When she disagrees, she is kind but clear. She responded to what many of us would call an Islamiphobic statement with a gentle persistence. The person with whom she was interacting did not sound like he was going to change his position. However, by the end of 2-3 conversational turns, he wrote that she had given him things to think about and that he needed to obtain more information about the subject. They engaged in a way that identified the humanity in each other. It was one of the more heartening experiences I’ve had.

Last night, I was at a Pride Month concert. It was a performance of the LBTGQ/Allies youth choir in which my daughter sings. I used the restroom before the concert. There was a woman at the sinks who looked like she might be transgendered. I know that as a 50 year-old woman, this was likely not the first time I’d shared a bathroom with a transgender woman. However, it is the first time since an outspoken and passionate segment of my country decided that this was a major threat to restroom safety. I was struck by how little it struck me and how normal it felt. I liked her hair and I made a mindful decision to give her a compliment, which was met with appreciation. I wanted her to know that I engaged with her humanity and that I supported her right to be there. Engaging with someone from a standpoint of connection rather than difference can mean so much. Sometimes the mundane can be a peaceful and comforting experience.

Honestly, I need to unplug from political discussion for a bit. But that does not mean that I have to unplug for humanity. I can still engage and I can engage purposefully with people with whom my fearful or judgmental mind categorizes as “other”.  Maybe I can engage in a brief conversation with people who whom I have a knee-jerk reaction to judge even though I think it’s wrong, for example, people in a cranky mood, parents who bring small children to romantic restaurants,  parents who deck their kids out in military style garb, and men who wear t-shirts or hats with “Official Babe Inspector” written on them.  Maybe I can engage with folks with whom I know I have strong political and religious differences about other topics.

It is a platitude, but it is true that people put up walls. It is so true that we have a presidential candidate who is talking about it LITERALLY. The world can get so easily overwhelming. I find myself in fear and great worry myself. I understand why people want to shut it out. I understand why people want to arm themselves against danger. I also understand why people want to yell, hurt, and destroy. I understand why people want to give up. I understand these things because they are part of my own individual human experience.

Fear, anger, shame, selfishness, and sadness are shared parts of our human experience. But so are joy, curiosity, hope, compassion, and charity. Together, we are more than the sum of our parts.

 

 

I have been focusing on intention in my last few months of mindfulness practice. There are certain practices that I would like to do more of, for example, mindful eating. I have made goals to increase my use of my Weight Watchers tracking since this is a good way for me to make mindful decisions about what I eat throughout the day and checking in with my body more regularly about when I am hungry. (I have a habit of undereating during the day and then snacking a lot after dinner as if the floodgates have been opened.)

Setting an intention has a different emphasis than does goal setting. In the latter, the emphasis is on outcome rather than experience. With intention, the emphasis is on the process, the experience. Honestly, I am often not able to keep this two constructs separate. But that’s where I am right now. I have set the intention to be more mindful of the difference in the course of my daily life.

May and June are typically very busy months for my work. I scheduled even more heavily than usual this year, for financial reasons. I am making some changes in my business model in the upcoming months, which I expect to have a short-term negative impact on my income. Added to that stress is my worry about the U.S. Presidential race. And oh yeah, I have a husband and daughter, who is working to graduate from high school in the next couple of weeks.

When I am feeling a lot of stress, I find myself making lots of goals and not following them. Recently, I have been using the word, “intention” in my mind. I have been walking regularly for almost four years now. There are some periods of ebb and flow in the distance and frequency of my walks. In the past few weeks, I’ve found myself less motivated and having a harder time getting myself to do long distances. It seems that there are pressing issues that I “should” be addressing at work or at home.

Today I was out on my walk. I thought to myself, “I intend to walk four miles.” Then I thought, “Well, maybe just 3 miles. I have a report to write.” I walked for awhile and thought to myself, “If I follow my intent today, I will have an easier time keeping promises to myself.” I walked the four miles and there was no more internal struggle.

As a breast cancer survivor and a person who wants health and peace in my life, following my intentions and commitments to self-care is really important.

 

I am finishing up my third quarter of pottery class. Due to scheduling issues, John and I have stayed in the beginner’s class each time. The first quarter was a blur. As much as I tried to watch her demonstrations, I left steps out without even realizing it. I thought very hard about what to do next. I had to concentrate very hard to get the clay centered on the wheel, so I was not trying to fight with a lop-sided form. Sometimes I was lucky and made something that I liked. Honestly, though, it was like the clay decided what shape it wanted to be.

Since we’ve stayed in the beginners’ class, I’ve had an opportunity to watch Miki, our instructor’s, demonstrations of basic technique. Each time, I watch what she is doing with less confusion, and each time, I notice familiar and unfamiliar steps. The basic forms in thrown pottery are the cylinder and the bowl. The forms are not just different on the outside but they are different on the inside, as well. Cylinders are flat on the bottom with straight sides. Bowls are well, bowl-shaped. There is a gentle slope to the center on the inside that is to echo the curve on the outside. I learned how to make the outside contour of a bowl before the inside. I am still working on the inside contour.

I have made a lot of bowls. Many of them collapsed. Others were of uneven thickness throughout. Other pieces crack. It took me awhile to notice this and then once I noticed it, I am still learning how to watch my instructor’s technique and compare it to my own. This process has required a lot of practice and close observation with every piece. I observe pressure, clay viscosity, my hand position, and the changing form of the clay.

All of this mindful observation has helped me progress in my skill. At the best times, I feel at home at the wheel. At other times, I feel like I am revisiting a strange land, a land in which spinning clay forms come unstuck from the wheel while they are spinning in my hand!

Mindful observation has such a grounding effect for me. Mindfulness is not solely thinking about the present. It is sometimes thinking about the past within the lens of the present or about the future, with a firm footing in the here and now. I can only live in the present, but I can recognize the past as part of my life and the future as the potential life ahead.

The month of May was a busy one and I strayed into fears about the future. I am working to increase my regular mindfulness and self-care practices back to the level they have been in the past when I felt more balanced. Today it occurred, as it has no doubt occurred to countless others, that I cannot plan a future without knowing where I am right now. It would be like planning a trip with no starting point.

Before you leave home, you need to figure out where you live.

Like all potters, my hands leave marks when I make forms on the pottery wheel. These concentric circles are called, “throwing lines”. Some throwing lines are faint and others much more pronounced, determined by the amount of pressure that I apply, the speed at which I move my hands, and the firmness of the clay. If I apply too much pressure and move my hands too quickly, the throwing lines are so deep and spread out that the form adopts a corkscrew shape. In these cases, it is best to just wire off the clay, dry off the wheel head, and start over with a new lump of clay.

It is possible in the making and finishing of the piece to use tools to remove or minimize the throwing lines. This results in very smooth forms. Personally, I enjoy the look of throwing lines, the ones that show that I used my own hands on the piece but are subtle concentric circles. The circles remind me of the meditative state in which I often find myself looking down at the spinning forms between my hands, working to bring shape to it, bit by bit, with more patience than I typically have, the last being a requirement of a beginning potter. Even at art galleries, I can often see evidence on a hand thrown piece of the artist’s hands. It is part of the art. It leaves the imprint of the process and a reminder that beautiful things do not come into being without work or struggle.

Teva Harrison, an American who lives in Canada, published a memoir of her life so far, as a young woman with stage 4 breast cancer. Teva is an artist and writer. She is a graduate of the Evergreen State College in Olympia, WA, from which famed cartoonists and writers,  Matt Groening and Linda Barry are also graduates. The book, In-Between Days is a marriage of drawings and short expository writings organized thematically into chapters, Diagnosis, Treatment, Side Effects, Marriage, Family, Society, Hopes, Fears, and Dreams.

I had read a number of Teva’s comics as they were published, one by one, in the online publication, The Walrus. They were quite powerful then but I find that reading the book is a more powerful and complete experience. Teva is at times funny at other times raw with great emotional honesty, and at other times, hopeful. Her comics convey a great deal in a small space. Teva’s panel depicting she and her husband learning the news that they will not be able to have children evokes the quiet isolation and grief of infertility.

Teva’s book is making waves in Canada. She is the subject of news stories and interviews. As an acquaintance of hers in the online breast cancer community, I could not be more thrilled for her. There is ongoing controversy in the breast cancer community about whether it is better to be positive or negative about one’s breast cancer experience. Although Teva’s cancer is a horrible reality with which she must deal, the work of her own hands show clearly on the work that is her own life. In a television interview, last month, Teva shared her dreams for her legacy. “I hope that my legacy will be one of enduring kindness.”

Teva, thank you for sharing your beautiful life with us.

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The “new normal” is a term used to describe getting back into a “normal” life after going through cancer treatment. I know a fair number of breast cancer survivors who hate that term. (“Survivor” is also another term with its own controversy, but I digress…) Cancer changes everything. How can anything be normal again?

I understand the complaint but I don’t share it. “Normal” means something different to me, anyway. It just means the mathematical average. (Remember, I am a nerd.) Yes, I grew up in a culture where “normal” means “good” but I was trained out of that in my education and in my clinical work when a kid says, “I just want to be normal” he/she is often really talking about feeling disconnected from others. Teens also want to be unique, special, which would be not being normal. Teens want a sense of an individual identity but they don’t want to be alone.

We are not unlike teens in this regard. They are just navigating a stressful period of growing up so there is drama surrounding the very basic human needs to have a balance between separation and connection.

It is nearly four years since my breast cancer diagnosis. I do feel that I’ve achieved a “new normal”. The new normal is knowing that life can change in a heartbeat, knock me into the air, and down to the ground. I can have up’s and downs and boring aspects of my life. I know that I can grow through grieving. I know that I can cultivate patience. I know that throughout my days so far, I can usually remain connected to my sense of self. I know that the person who is flying in the air is the same person as the one who usually has her feet firmly beneath her.

One of the most powerful lessons of my “new normal” is to take opportunities for joy and happiness when I can.

That’s today’s “new normal”. Tomorrow may be different.

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