A Friend in the Storm: A Review of Nancy Stordahl’s Cancer Memoir

Being a breast cancer patient can be lonely. Even with supportive friends and family, no one really knows what it’s like to endure the shock, anger, grief, and stress of being diagnosed with cancer, and then to undergo the scorched-earth treatment of it. No one knows what it’s like to put up with exhortations to ‘stay positive’ and ‘be brave’ when you feel like a train wreck. No one knows how you feel when you are surrounded by marketing images that trivialize your disease, that dress up its harsh reality in a gloss of pink.

But suppose you had a kind and thoughtful friend who had also gone through it. Suppose you got to sit down with her and talk for hours. Suppose you could ask her every question you could think of, and finally get to hear all the details of her experience, delivered straight-up, without the pretty-in-pink nonsense that leaves you feeling isolated and ignored. Finally, you think. Someone who really gets it! That’s what it’s like to read Nancy Stordahl’s memoir, Cancer Was Not a Gift & It Didn’t Make Me a Better Person.

Many of us have gotten to know Nancy from her popular blog, Nancy’s Point. I came upon her blog some time in 2011, and was struck from the start by her honest, unvarnished prose. We quickly became cyber-friends. Like many of her long-time readers and blog-sisters, we’ve come to know a lot about each other over the years. But, as with any friend, you want to know more. Reading her memoir was, therefore, an opportunity to get answers to all those questions I would ask her if she and I were sitting together in person, with nothing but time to commiserate.

Without giving too much away, I will say that one of the most poignant aspects of Nancy’s memoir is how she weaves the story of her mother’s experience with breast cancer into the threads of her own. As I read, I kept thinking of how such a circumstance would magnify the anguish, and about how many women have gone through exactly that anguish. Bad enough to watch your own mother experience its ravages, but then to be diagnosed yourself? Hell on earth.

All these years after my own diagnosis, I find I can only stand to read precious few books about cancer. After treating cancer patients all day in my job as a physical therapist, after writing this blog for seven years, after reading countless blog posts and research articles, after losing so many friends, sometimes the last thing I want to do in a spare moment is to read another book about it. I’ve lost count of how many blog posts I’ve written rejecting the notion that cancer is some kind of blessing, or some sort of opportunity to build one’s character. In fact, I was writing about these and other aspects of breast cancer, and often feeling like one of the lone voices in the pink wilderness, before Nancy was diagnosed herself in April of 2010, and before she started her blog some months later. Although I hated discovering that yet another vital person had been diagnosed, it was a tremendous relief to find Nancy’s blog, and to know that someone else was willing and able to speak to these and many other issues from a similar perspective. The title of Nancy’s memoir says it all. How could I not read it?

And I’m glad I did. Any good memoir underscores the truth that the personal is universal. And so it is with Nancy’s memoir. If you’ve ever loved someone with breast cancer, cared for someone with breast cancer, faced the implications of BRCA gene mutations, or had breast cancer yourself, you will find something that resonates with your own experience. Even if none of the above applies to you, if you want to understand, to get past the deceptive tyranny of Pinktober, or to learn about the reality of facing a life-changing catatrophe, you will learn much from Nancy.

As she states in her introduction, Nancy’s intent is to share her own story about ‘cancer as I know it[…] because sharing is healing, empowering and hopefully helps us all feel less alone.’ Read it, and you will find a friend in the storm.

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The Pet Whisperer

My first guardian angel was a dog. She was a mostly-brown German Shepherd, with the unimaginative but serviceable name of Brownie. I was only an infant when she cared for me, but I must have learned from her, because I grew to have an instinct for devotion and kindness toward animals that I did not learn from humans. According to my parents, even when I began to toddle on two legs, they never had to caution me not to pull ears or tails, or shriek and run headlong at any cat, dog, or other small, non-human creature. Thanks to Brownie, I always approached all four-legged beings gently, with loving intent.

The stories I heard most often about Brownie described how she guarded me from interlopers. Naturally, aunts, uncles, and family friends wanted to ‘see the baby’ when they visited for holidays and parties. Usually with a cocktail in hand, they would wander unsteadily, ice cubes tinkling, down the short hallway to my bedroom door, where they would find Brownie, stretched across the threshold, alert and suspicious. If they were unaccompanied by one of my parents, Brownie would not admit them. If they tried, unwisely, to get past her, she would deflect their intrusion with a low, sneering growl. Only if and when my mother or father came along to reassure her, would she arise and let them pass. Then, while they cooed at her small charge, she would park herself at the foot of my crib, ever watchful in case my parents had misjudged their intentions.

Before I was old enough to form conscious memories of her, Brownie died of distemper, in an era before its vaccine was routinely distributed. Upset and insecure after my protector abandoned me, I waddled around the house looking for her to no avail. I had no siblings to share my grief. My neighborhood chums were distracting, but they had to return to their own homes after our brief and boisterous playtimes. By then, fissures had begun to appear in the solidity of my parents’ unified joy, and in my mother’s peace of mind. Like a thunderstorm crashing upon our domestic peace, my mother’s unhappiness flashed like lightning, followed by rumbling arguments, tears, and slammed doors. I was too young to understand the reasons for these storms, but not too young to notice them. The cold comfort of reason would come later. For now, my world felt inexplicably unsafe.

In my distraught, lonesome state, I must have wrenched a few grownup hearts, because for my next birthday, my godmother gave me a small brown stuffed dog with a rattle inside its paw. I named him Goggie. Thereafter, I never went anywhere without clutching Goggie like a talisman. One of my first clear memories is of my poor mother prying him from my sobbing embrace so she could wash him. I still remember planting myself, indignant and horrified, by the washer and dryer in the basement, tears rolling down my cheeks until Goggie emerged.

When Goggie inevitably disintegrated from my abundant love, my godmother provided Goggie Too for Christmas. I also got a doll dressed in a cowgirl outfit. I don’t remember what happened to the doll, but I remember dressing Goggie Too in her fringed skirt, vest, and tiny boots. He didn’t mind. I pretended to be his pony.

My mother had by then begun to read to me every day. My favorite book was a story about a long-haired gray kitten with a blue ribbon around his neck. I made her read it to me so many times that I memorized the shapes of the letters on the page. One day, magically, they began to turn from mere ciphers into words I could understand. My mother rewarded me by giving me two long-haired toy kitties, one white and one black, covered in soft fake fur. I don’t remember their names, but Goggie Too readily accepted them as part of our pack, and permitted them to sleep with us at night.

By the time I started first grade, I was allowed to escape my house unaccompanied to seek new sources of solace. I struck up a friendship with a kindly, maternal, female collie-mix named Ranger, who lived with our next-door neighbors. Upon my daily greetings, Ranger gave gentle kisses, sat for treats, and permitted fervent hugs. When Ranger died of old age the following spring, I was again bereft, and hoped that perhaps my neighbors, or maybe even my parents, might get another dog. They did not, but I was astonished and delighted when my parents gave me a real kitten for my seventh birthday. He was an orange tiger, and he arrived in our house peeking out of my father’s coat pocket. He liked to chase my mother’s broom as she swept the floor, so at first I named him Sweep-ee. Unfortunately, the name was subject to misinterpretation, so my mother and I discussed it, and I compromised by calling him Sweet Pea instead.

Sweet Pea was an affectionate and biddable kitten. He slept in sunspots, like most cats, but his favorite napping spot was the green paper grass in my Easter basket, where he would curl up like an orange pillow. Even when he’d clearly outgrown the basket, he would stuff himself into it, like a muffin that expanded beyond its muffin tin. I wisely refrained from dressing him in doll clothes, but he was quite happy to be wheeled around in my doll carriage.

As Sweet Pea grew into young adulthood, he began to shrug off the bounds of domestication. He’d go off for two or three days on hunting trips, and when he returned, would reward us for enduring his absence with a gift of a small animal carcass. My mother would always congratulate him, somewhat timidly, her compliments dampened by the unpleasant task of disposing of his gifts.

Sweet Pea was one of the very few orange cats in the neighborhood, and the only orange tomcat. This he verified by means of enthusiastically romancing all the female cats in the vicinity. Of course there were other tomcats likewise occupied, but when our neighbors’ black and white and gray and tabby females produced orange kittens, it was hard to deny their parentage. Unfortunately, he also felt compelled to defend his harem against the competition, and often returned home with a new notch in his ear, but no discernable scars to his ego. After one particularly bloody altercation, my father and I had to take him to the vet, to have him patched up and finally neutered. It was a memorable trip. Despite a thorough fumigation, my father’s car never quite smelled the same afterward. Fortunately, it was the beginning of summer, and after leaving the car windows open for weeks on end, there remained only the merest whiff of eau de tom on the back of the driver’s seat. Alas, Sweet Pea’s romancing days were over, but not, as it turned out, his fighting and hunting adventures. Some instincts never die.

Eventually, these instincts overtook the relative merits of domestication, and became a fullblown existential crisis. Sweet Pea demonstrated this one evening as my parents and I were watching ‘The Wizard of Oz’ on TV. For no apparent reason, and without any provocation, Sweet Pea wandered into the livingroom, launched himself at my shoulder and raked his claws down my arm, whereupon he sauntered to his food dish to restore his equilibrium. Fortunately, my injuries were superficial and healed quickly and without complications. Sweet Pea himself, however, earned another trip to the vet, to make sure nothing was physically wrong. After getting a clean bill of health, my father carted him away for good a few days later. My mother attempted to console me by explaining that Sweet Pea was going to live with a local farmer who needed a good mouser. I was not sure I believed her, but I decided it was useless to probe the matter. On the whole, I was inclined to regard Sweet Pea’s attack as a mere aberration, and it did not diminish my fondness for cats in general. However, it did diminish the chances that my parents would adopt another pet anytime soon. So, once again, after only a few short years, I was a lonely only without a furry companion.

In the meantime, my parents’ existential crises continued unabated. There were now fights over dinner, exacerbated by the several beers my father would imbibe after work with friends at a local bar. Our dinner would barely be on the table when dishes would be hurled amidst shouted accusations. Even I, at my young age, could not help but observe the pointlessness of these eruptions, and one night, I told my parents exactly what I thought of them. All I achieved was to get hollered at to mind my own business. Infuriated and frightened, I burst into tears, ran into my room, and slammed the door. After that, I kept my opinions to myself.

Our near-neighbors no longer had pets that might serve me as surrogate companions, so I began to search farther afield. By now, I was in the fourth grade. After leaving my school friends at their doors as we walked home, I would turn into the circle of two streets that comprised our immediate neighborhood, and scan all the yards and porches for pets to greet. Of course, I already knew the friendly cats and dogs. But I was compelled, no doubt by my own inner turmoil, to notice those few pets who seemed lonely or reticent or conflicted, and, by dint of patient reassurance, to win them over. I was on a mission.

My first candidate required a two-week-long campaign. He was a lush, black, long-haired cat that lived at the top of our street, just around the corner from the main road. Every day after school, I would crouch at the end of his front path, where he would be stretched out by the steps in a patch of sun, several feet away, fixing me with an unwelcoming gaze. I murmured to him in my gentlest voice, resting an open hand on the ground, telling him over and over how handsome he was. A week into my efforts, I was caught in the act. The lady who lived there emerged from her front door one afternoon and stopped abruptly at the sight of me, on my knees in my dark green, Catholic school uniform, my book bag flung behind me on the grass, cooing and whispering at a safe distance. I felt some explanation was in order.

“Your kitty is really beautiful,” I said, in what I hoped was my most innocent, beguiling voice. “I love long-haired kitties. Is it a boy or a girl?”

She smiled. “A boy. His name is Midnight. I’m surprised he’s let you get this close. He usually runs away from strangers.”

I was encouraged to hear this. “I’ve been talking to him every day. I hope it’s okay.”

“Of course! I’m just walking to the mailbox. If he hasn’t run off so far, you must be making progress.”

As she walked away, I sat down and admired the way the sun had bleached patches of Midnight’s black fur into a deep mahogany. He didn’t let me get any closer that day, but he favored me with a slow, accepting blink.

A week later, Midnight allowed me to get within a scant two feet of him. I stretched out my hand as far as I could, and kept very still. After staring at me for what seemed like forever, he stretched his face toward me to sniff my fingertips. Very slowly, I curled my fingers under his chin and rubbed gently. He began to purr. I worked up to his ears, crawling minutely closer, when, wonderfully, he flopped on his back and let me rub his luxurious tummy. I heard the front door crack open and looked up to see the lady smiling. A few minutes later, she came out and silently rewarded me with a cookie. Thereafter, I visited Midnight every day, no cookies necessary. His purring was enough.

Flushed with success, I decided next to try my skills on what I perceived to be a truly challenging prospect. This was a dog who lived with his family across the street and a few doors down from Midnight. His name was Jack. Jack was a small, long-haired mix of perhaps terrier and something a bit larger and fluffier. He was mostly black and white, with standup ears that flopped over at the tips, and a long, furry tail that curved up like an ostrich plume. Each afternoon, he was placed outside at the end of a long lead, to await the return from school of the two small boys who lived there. He always greeted them happily, I had observed, but barked fearfully at any other child who walked by.

Jack’s barking at the neighborhood children did not earn him any compassion. Instead, most of the girls rushed by the house on the opposite side of the street. Most of the boys would taunt him with loud jeers, sometimes tossing sticks or pebbles at his feet just to watch him cower and bark more frantically. They dismissed Jack as mean, nasty and irredeemable, which I could not help but interpret as the pot calling the kettle black. The unfairness of their behavior made me more determined to disprove Jack’s reputation, and to prove concurrently that the neighborhood children were ignorant louts who’d succumbed to mob mentality.

I started one afternoon, after visiting Midnight, by crouching just beyond the reach of Jack’s lead and talking softly. Of course he barked at me at first, but I told him I understood. I kept still, with my hands on the ground. I assured him that I was not like the other kids, and apologized for their behavior. I told him I could tell that he loved his family, and that he was just doing his job by protecting his patch. I told him he was a handsome boy, with a beautiful tail. I told him I would visit him every day. I don’t know what he thought of me that first day, but he stopped barking to sit and listen. I said goodbye, stood up slowly, and walked home.

The next day, I saved half of my lunchtime sandwich. Jack barked, then stopped while I crouched and talked gently. I broke off bits of lunch meat and carefully tossed them near the end of his lead. I sat and waited. Jack sniffed the treats, but didn’t eat them. Instead, he sat and skeptically listened to my monologue. I told him I didn’t mind at all that he didn’t trust me yet, and told him I’d come back tomorrow. As I walked away, Jack stared after me for several moments, then at last nibbled cautiously at one of my treats.

Over the next few days, I took a few extra slices of lunch meat to school for Jack. I repeated my routine, but by now, Jack did not bark at me, but sat and waited. I tossed him a small treat. He sniffed, looked at me, sniffed again and gobbled it up. I told him he was a good boy and went home. On the fifth day, a Friday, I kept the lunch meat in my pocket, squatted closer to the end of his lead, and called his name. He approached slowly and sat. I told him he was a good boy and held out a large piece of meat with the tips of my fingers. Gently, timidly, he grasped it with his teeth. I let it go while he finished it. I put my hand, palm down, on the ground by his front paws. He sniffed and licked my hand. I turned my palm up and let him sniff and lick. I raised my hand a little and he touched it with his nose. We both held still and looked at each other. This might be the moment of truth.

“Would you let me pat you?” I asked him. “I would like to be your friend.” Jack considered this for a few minutes. Finally, he inched a little closer and bumped my hand with his nose. I told him he was a good boy. Then he sat, raised his paw and put it in my hand. I grasped it gently and thanked him. He cocked his head. I let go and stroked his leg. He put his paw in my hand again. I stroked his leg and moved up to his shoulder. He let me rub him for a minute. When I stopped, he wagged his tail. I raised my hand higher and crawled a little closer. He wagged and let me rub his ear. I told him he was a very good boy.

The next day was Saturday, and I decided that Jack deserved an extra visit. I walked up the hill to his house and found him, outside, on his lead, lying in the sun. He trotted up to me, wagging his tail and grinning. I sat down and rubbed his ears and neck. He licked my face. A few minutes later, three of the nasty boys walked by. When they saw us, they stopped, but kept their distance. Jack chose to keep an eye on them, but didn’t bark.

“How did you do that?” one of them demanded. “He’s a mean dog. He’ll probably bite you.”

“He’s not mean. And he doesn’t bite. You’ve all been mean to him,” I said. “He’s just shy. If you’re nice to him, he’ll be nice to you.”

“Would he let us pat him?” one of the other boys asked.

“Maybe,” I said. “You have to crouch down and be gentle. His name is jack. Tell him he’s a good boy and let him come to you. One at a time, not all at once,” I instructed, “and I’ll bite you myself if you don’t.”

Perhaps it was the shock of being contradicted and threatened by a mere girl, but one by one, the boys cautiously followed my commands. Within a few minutes, Jack was happily surrounded by three new friends. One of the boys took a ball from his pocket and rolled it across the lawn, which Jack agreeably fetched and returned.

“Wow! He’s really a nice dog!” they said.

“Of course he is!” I said.

Within days, or maybe hours, my instructions and exhortations were evidently repeated throughout the neighborhood. By Monday, when I came home from school and went to greet Jack, he was already surrounded by a small group of children, including the two small boys from his home, who were rubbing his ears and rolling balls for him to fetch. Jack was no longer the neighborhood pariah, and I was looked upon as having some kind of magical powers. We both suddenly had a lot of new friends.

Eventually, I told my parents about Midnight and Jack. By the end of the school year, they’d stopped fighting every night, and my dad went to an AA meeting. I still didn’t get my own cat or dog, but I didn’t mind as much.

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Posted in: Stories from Childhood by Kathi 4 Comments

Remembering Shelli

Two years ago today, my friend Shelli, who blogged at the Dirty Pink Underbelly, died of metastatic breast cancer. Four days after her death, I started writing this post. And couldn’t quite finish it. It wasn’t any easier to finish it today than it was then.

[February 17, 2014] This entire thing about making friends via social media is a little dangerous. Especially in the cancer club. What happens when you really bond with someone? What if they’re having a truly execrable day and you want to rush over and do something for them? Except that they live in Timbuktu, and you don’t, and the only chance you have of providing tangible help is if Doctor Who lands his TARDIS in your driveway and whisks you off. Or if Harry Potter drops in and teaches you how to disapparate. What if they have metastatic breast cancer? What if they have to go to the hospital — again? Sure, you can text and message and email till your fingers fall off. But all the texted hugs in the world feel inadequate in such a circumstance. And yet, bless them, they still tell you that it matters that you’re there, waaaay over there, far away in cyberspace, offering your understanding and affection in bits and bytes.

Such was the nature of my friendship with Shelli. It started off, like many of my closest cyber-friendships have, with us stumbling upon each other, around September of 2012, as we were both girding our loins to endure yet another Pinktober.

I believe we found each other’s blogs, then our blog Facebook pages, and then became friends on Facebook, all about the same time. She told me about her other Facebook page, Cancer Pissed Me Off Today. I told her about helping METAvivor launch their first blog. We conversed a lot via private message. Our first long conversation was about bone mets. It was a conversation that never really ended, as Shelli endured pain, hot spots, and pathological fractures, plus the radiation, chemo, pain meds, and vertebroplasties all aimed at controlling them.

The other thing we talked about a lot was the Pink Peril and our frustration at its pernicious persistence. Last September, as we braced ourselves for our second Pinktober as friends, she said, “I get so frustrated every year when noobs don’t know, don’t get, and keep spouting the pink froth. It feels like swimming upstream. I even have gotten in arguments with others with mets who haven’t been de-pinked, and think that the way to raise awareness is to blend in and be the same as the pink. I feel like a meanie crankie bitch pants.”

Eventually, we discovered that we shared an abiding cyberlove for Carolyn Frayn, who also had metastatic breast cancer. That led to some hilarious three-way communication, knee-deep in noir humor and creative cussing. Carolyn and I were particularly fond of one of Shelli’s posts, Any One of Us Could Go at Any Time, which utterly and humorously destroys the “anyone could get hit by a bus tomorrow” thing, which foolish people — okay, thoughtless jackasses — all too often utter to people with metastatic cancer.

In the interest of full disclosure, let me just provide a little background. As of my last checkups, I do not have metastatic breast cancer. I was diagnosed with widespread, ER/PR+, apparently high-grade DCIS in 2008. I endured the full-freight slash/burn/poison routine, albeit the poison coming in the form of oral anti-estrogen drugs. I did not elect to have reconstruction. I did manage to find and exploit the humor of having a prosthesis that looks like a chicken cutlet. I feel incredibly lucky to have become friends with Shelli and Carolyn. And Rachel. And several other remarkable women who do have metastatic breast cancer. It was Rachel who first coined the phrase “fearless friends,” describing us early-stagers who ‘get it,’ who are informed about metastatic breast cancer, and who are just as appalled that its death toll continues, who have no illusions about its potential to strike anyone. Still, there is a part of me that is humbled and amazed that any of these women would ever want to have me as a friend. Sure, I’m a clinician, and one of my first clinical specialties as a physical therapist was oncology rehab. So, yes, I get it and I got it a long time ago. I like to think, therefore, that of necessity and desire, I’ve developed perhaps more empathy and compassion than the average person. But still, what do I know about living with an expiration date, as Carolyn once put it? So, I feel humbled and grateful that any of these women would regard me as a friend, and not just a casual friend, but someone they could confide in about all the shit they’ve had to endure.

Carolyn used to tell me that she wondered why I would want her as a friend. She once told me that she and Shelli opined that I might be crazy for wanting to be friends with people who were likely to die, horribly, before I did. That stopped me in my tracks for a moment. But then, of course, I reminded her that I could get hit by a bus tomorrow, and we both laughed.

On Friday, February 14, 2014, I was schlepping through another crazy workday. I had to drive many more miles than usual to see some of my homecare patients. I tried to schedule them by location, so I could see the distant ones in the morning, and the closer ones in the afternoon. It wasn’t working out. I was a little frustrated, but not overly. That’s life in homecare, after all. I was more frustrated by worry. For weeks, I had been worried about Shelli, who had been in an Arizona nursing home rehab center for several weeks, after being hospitalized for treatment of more bone pain and pathological fractures. Since being transferred to rehab, mets had evidently spread to her meninges, which are the membranes that cover the brain and spinal cord. She had not been fully conscious for days. She was in horrible pain. It was hard to get accurate, current information about her condition or about what was being done for her. For several days, I had been furiously messaging and emailing a couple of mutual friends, one of whom was there in Arizona and visiting her as often as she could. The other was Carolyn.

On Friday morning, I did not have time before I hit the road to check my emails or Facebook to find out how Shelli was. But I had this feeling. I tried to get online with my cellphone during short breaks between patients, but it seemed that everywhere I drove that day, I ended up in cellphone death valley. Finally, I texted Carolyn, and she texted me back: Shelli had died sometime the night before. Somehow I did manage to be moderately useful to the rest of my patients and to drive home safely.

The second last conversation I had with Shelli started with her congratulating me for using a comical euphemism in a comment on her timeline about her progressing bone mets, a post which would be seen by certain members of her family who shunned expletives. This was in late October, 2013. She applauded me for managing to avoid saying ‘fuck,’ even though she knew that’s what I wanted to say, and which I did say in a private message, along with pledging to work on my “Expelliarmus Cancer” spell. She wrote back, “Expelliarmus Cancer! LOL! Capital idea! I giggled out loud! Thank you for your treasured support. Thank you for being cognizant of when present company would really make dropping the f-bomb uncomfortable.”

Our final conversation occurred in the last days of December, 2013, when her bone pain was becoming unendurable, and the treatment wasn’t much better. “Not sure what I’m doing here,” she said, referring to her hospitalization, “other than that I couldn’t walk and kept winding up on the floor.”

“Wish I were there to help you up. xoxo,” I typed back.

“I wish you could fix everything. xoxo,” she said.

“Me, too,” I said.


[February 13, 2016] Yesterday, as it happens, I read a Facebook post written by another woman with metastatic breast cancer, disgusted after she was told by a breast surgeon that, “Well, I may step off a curb and get hit by a bus…” In my comment, I left the link to Shelli’s hit-by-a-bus post. As of this moment, her link was liked by seven other women. It doesn’t fix everything, but it helps. And I think Shelli would be pleased.

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Picture This

New Horizons

Many of you know that I’ve started writing articles now and then for Healthline. It was flattering to be asked to write for them, and it’s even nicer that my editor liked my suggestion that I write as a physical therapist who has been a breast cancer patient, who often treats cancer patients, and can thus offer clinical advice.

It’s been interesting, to say the least, to be on this side of the editing process, after years of editing myself and others. Now I have to comply with a lengthy list of submission guidelines and rules about what kind of references and links I’m allowed to use. Years ago, I helped edit a magazine, so I know what it’s like to deal with writers who submit appalling copy and are not receptive to editorial suggestions. With all that in mind, I’ve tried and generally succeeded in sending my editor decent copy, and so far, he’s been appreciative, and his edits have been few and apt.

Back in November of 2015, I submitted a lengthy piece about arm and shoulder pain with breast cancer. It included a section with exercise advice and descriptions. My editor suggested breaking it into two articles, one with the clinical explanation of why we develop arm and shoulder pain during and after treatment, and the other with the exercises themselves. I agreed. We both thought it would be helpful to include pictures or illustrations. Since we couldn’t use pictures from someone else’s website because of copyright restrictions, he said he would see if Healthline could arrange for some.


Meanwhile, the clinical article was published, while work continued on the exercise article. A few weeks later, my editor emailed me some exercise photos that were taken by one of Healthline’s freelance photographers. As photos go, they were okay. The photographer and the model both got the poses right from my descriptions. But they were wrong for my article. They showed a perky young woman of about 20, glowing with health, dressed in a tight pink spandex camisole, her long hair perfectly coifed. She was photographed in a glitzy health club, against a backdrop of barbells and weight-training equipment. I was flabbergasted. It took me a day or two to get my shock under control, and write, with some trepidation, what I hoped was a diplomatic email to my editor, pointing out that he might want to rethink them. My exercises, I told him, were aimed at people, mostly women, who had just had breast surgery, who might have lymphedema as well, who were mostly not 20 years old, who were sick and possibly facing chemotherapy and radiation, and who needed some gentle exercises they could do at home. I didn’t hear back from him, which felt a little ominous, and then the holiday season arrived, and I had other things to think about.

Stick Figures

After the first of the year, I finally got an email from my editor suggesting a few new topics for articles. My unpublished exercise article, however, was not mentioned. I realized I couldn’t start another article until the exercise piece was resolved one way or another.

As a physical therapist, I’ve handed out hundreds, possibly thousands, of home exercise programs in my career. If you’ve ever had rehab, you’ve probably received them. You know what they’re usually like. Sometimes, I scribble verbal descriptions only. Often, I throw in a few stick figures. Sometimes, I have time to print out pre-made programs with illustrations showing age-neutral, nondescript people. In the past decade or so, software and websites for rehab therapists have endeavored to include illustrations showing people of all ages and genders, so that we can target our handouts more closely to the patients who will be following them.

Theraband Scapular Exercise

Since Healthline needed illustrations they could own, I sat myself down, opened Illustrator, and decided to draw them some. I drew one that went with one of the exercises in my still-unpublished article. Then I emailed my editor, attached the drawing, asked if we might try to get the thing online at last, and offered to do the drawings myself. He wrote back to say that he couldn’t assign any more freelance art projects right now, but he might be able to contract me for illustrations in a few months. He agreed with me that he was disappointed that the photographs didn’t conform to his suggestions about setting and attire. Meanwhile, he looked forward to a draft for my next article. He didn’t say anything about when or if the exercise article would get posted.

Two mornings later, I checked Facebook before leaving for work, and lo and behold, my friend Nancy, of Nancy’s Point, had posted a link to Healthline for my exercise article. They had decided to publish my explanation and descriptions, sans pictures. At last!


On the whole, this freelance writing gig continues to be full of mostly pleasant surprises, although I will admit that I am often a bit mystified about how and when decisions get made. But I’m grateful to my editor, and to Healthline, for going the distance with me on this. They say that every picture is worth a thousand words. But sometimes, words alone are all you need. And at least I managed to spare us all from being excruciatingly represented by a happy, pink-clad model who looked like she’d probably never suffered anything worse than a hangnail. Although I probably shouldn’t make assumptions, because too many of us have had some fool tell us, “But you don’t look sick!” You never know. In any case, in the future, you may see this drawing on the left, or perhaps other illustrations drawn by yours truly, accompanying another article. Or not. Seems appropriate that the first one I drew was a shrug.

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