Warning: this post might piss you off. Because it might be about you.

My favorite new-ish word that has been invented lately is “mansplaining.” This would be when someone, often a man, explains something to someone, usually a woman, that she already understands and knows more about than the explainer. As a lawyer, I found this happening to me a lot. Once in a while, a woman lawyer would mansplain to me, but most often it was a male lawyer doing the mansplaining. The times I found it the most grating during my career as a civil rights lawyer were when a mansplainer lectured me about about women’s rights. Funny how those mansplainers never noticed me rolling my eyes.

Now that I am out of the world of the practicing lawyer, the mansplaining I experience is no longer about the law. It’s primarily about cancer. And much more so than when I was a practicing lawyer, it comes from women as much as men, to the point that I feel it needs a new word to describe it: cancersplaining.

Let me give a few examples.

“I know just how you must feel. My aunt had breast cancer, so I had the BRCA testing done. Luckily it came back negative. Have you heard of BRCA?”

“I just read about this diet that is supposed to fight cancer, you should try it.”

“Oh, you have cancer? I just read about this new cancer drug that’s showing promise in mice.”

“Mammograms are so scary. I was so nervous going in for mine. But early screening saves lives. The data is so compelling, isn’t it?”

Here is what I hear when someone says these things:


The thing with splaining of all types is that it exposes to the listener just how little the speaker actually knows about the topic. For example, if you knew anything about cancer, you wouldn’t talk to someone with cancer about some drug showing promise in mice, because that drug won’t be on the market for humans for years, if ever. And loads of drugs that show promise in mice turn out to be useless in people. So sure, cancersplainer, please go on and on about some treatment that won’t be available until I am dead, if it ever becomes available at all. I am a pretty polite person, but internally, whenever someone tells me about some study they read about, I am rolling my eyes.

Also, as many as 30% of women who get early stage breast cancer will go on to get metastatic cancer. Every time I walk past that fucking “early screening saves lives” poster at the mammogram clinic that’s on the way to my oncologist’s office, I want to scream. No, cancersplainer, the data is not compelling, actually. It’s fucking depressing.

Likewise with people who claim to know what cancer is like when they haven’t had it. The emotions involved in having cancer are extremely complex and individual. Saying “I know how you feel” is a fingernails on chalkboard phrase. That is the worst kind of cancersplaining to me. In the words of Robin Williams in Good Will Hunting, “You’re an orphan, right? You think I know the first thing about how hard your life has been, how you feel, who you are, because I read Oliver Twist? Does that encapsulate you?” That you read The Fault In Our Stars or saw Terms of Endearment does not mean you know what this is like for me.

Clearly I am worked up here, but let me pause for a moment. Are cancersplainers or other kinds of splainers bad people? No, of course not–usually they are trying to be helpful or to relate to my experience. They’re just really really shitty at it, and their behavior is disrespectful. It is disrespectful to lecture to people, and even more so, to lecture to people who have more experience with a subject than you do. Especially with a topic as profound as having cancer.

What is a better approach? For me, asking questions is what I prefer. I like it when someone asks “What is your treatment regimen like?” instead of telling me “I read about XYZ treatment regimen, you should ask your doctor about it.” Another one I like is “How are you feeling” rather than “You look great, you must be feeling well.” Because, I may look OK, but my emotions may be in the shitter, and maybe I’d like to talk about it. And maybe I don’t want to talk about it, but giving me space to, instead of telling me how I “must” feel, makes me feel more respected.

That said, I can’t presume to speak for all cancer patients in the world. I can only speak for me and what my experience is. So, maybe ask your friends with cancer how they would like to be spoken to. But I am going to crawl out on a limb and guess that they don’t want to be cancersplained to either. And I hope they will chime in here in the comments.

Beth’s Classic Film Club: Imitation of Life

You know, race is a pretty fucked up subject. Like, here is this thing that we invented as a species, that has no basis in science, and yet, we use it as an excuse to literally rape and murder and otherwise subjugate people. It holds so much power over us. And we think of ourselves now as living in a post-racial utopia for a minute and then bam, another unarmed black kid gets killed by a scared white dude. What the fuck, man.

You know who else thought they were handling race issues just fine but actually weren’t? The people in our next film, Imitation of Life. Which version, you ask–the one from the 1930’s with Claudette Colbert or the one from the 50’s with Lana Turner? Both, of course. They have the same basic plot: poor single white mom meets poor single black mom. White mom hires black mom as her servant. White mom gets rich and has arguments with her grown daughter over a man they both love. Black mom’s daughter is light skinned and passes as white, freaking out her black mom.

The whole plot is a shitshow of racial non-transcendence that is designed to make you feel totally skeeved out. You should not be watching this film to have a good time. You should be watching this film and saying “Seriously, did that actually just happen?” Yes, yes it did. And you know what’s truly awful? Most of that could easily still happen today. What race do we most closely associate with housekeepers and nannies today? Do their children struggle to have pride in their cultural heritage in the face of a society that relentlessly demands assimilation in order to succeed financially? It’s still happening, folks.

I personally prefer the Claudette Colbert version because it adds a layer of exploitation of the black woman that I think makes the film even more button-pushing to modern audiences. Colbert’s character gets rich by selling a product her servant invented and with her servant’s picture on it (think Aunt Jemima) and the servant only gets 20% of the profits. And of course, the servant keeps being a servant even when the company is a big success. What. The. Fuck.

Then again, I really love the 1950’s melodrama genre, and the Lana Turner version is a prime example of it. I mean, Turner is the queen of the 50’s melodrama. You need an emotionally damaged mom for a tearjerker? Call Lana Turner. (In real life, she was a good friend of Ava Gardner, who is my spirit animal.) And Susan Kohner, who plays the light skinned daughter, is amazing in this film. Did you know that Kohner’s mom was Mexican and her dad was Bohemian? So she’s literally a mixed-race woman portraying a different mixed-race woman passing as white.

Honestly? Rent both of them, and decide which one you prefer. I think they’re both movies that will make you feel and think things. Let me know which version you prefer in the comments!

Little pieces of me

Did you ever see the movie Boxing Helena? Please don’t go seeking it out if you haven’t, because, man, that is one fucked up movie. The basic storyline is that it’s about a woman whose captor cuts off parts of her body one at a time. She literally becomes smaller and smaller. That movie has been on my mind recently as a metaphor for what having cancer has been like, because I keep losing pieces of myself. Let’s make a list, shall we? These are in chronological order.

1. My hair. First it went from long to short, then it went from short to gone. It’s growing back now, for now, until more IV chemo happens and it falls out again. In the meantime I am left with a pixie cut that lots of people compliment me on, but I hate. Because it wasn’t my choice. I won’t be growing my hair long ever again, because the shed with long hair was so awful, and I know the odds of me needing chemo in the future are so high. From now on, I will have short hair.

2. My menstrual cycle. The last time Aunt Flo visited was in May. This isn’t actually a bad thing, since I had no interest in kids and I hated my extremely heavy period, but it has meant hot flashes and vaginal dryness, neither of which are awesome.

3. My sex drive. It left with Aunt Flo.

4. My breast. It has gone to the big medical incinerator in the sky.

5. My nonchalance about my appearance. I never used to think or care much about how I looked. That was before I was bald and missing a breast.

6. My job. I used to be a civil rights lawyer, and I’m not anymore. Technically I am still a lawyer, since I still have a license, but I’m not a practicing one. Being a civil rights lawyer was something I was really proud of, and that’s gone now.

7. My ability to engage in everyday conversations with regular human beings without making them feel awkward. Tell me about the new hair style you are considering and I will tell you how I hate my hair style because of cancer. Tell me about the new job you are applying for and I may clam up because it hurts to talk about careers when mine was taken from me. Talking about what the kids will be when they are grown up is like stabbing me in the gut and I may start crying, which is really awkward.

Every time I lose another thing to cancer, I wonder how many more pieces of me I can lose before I cease to be me. And if I’m not me anymore, what will I be then?

But my real fear isn’t so much about what I’ll become. It’s that I will lose all these little pieces of me, and then die from cancer anyway. That I will lose so many of the things that make me who I am, for nothing. On my darkest days, that’s the thought that cripples me.

And yet, what choice do I have? Because, cancer has taken that also, my ability to choose. I have no choice but to keep up the treatments and try to stay alive as long as I can. The only alternative to losing so much is losing everything.

The Prickly Kid

Last year, The Boy made friends with a kid whose mom described him to me as “a bit prickly.” Let’s call him Prickly Kid. The Boy is pretty good at making friends–he is a good talker, and a pleaser. He gets shy sometimes, and once in a while he has a conflict with another kid, but mostly he gets along with everyone. And for that, I am grateful. The Girl already has a frenemy, so I know things are going to be a bit rougher for her when she starts school.

But back to Prickly Kid. Sometime in the late fall, Prickly Kid’s mom, who is not even remotely prickly herself, sent me a very sweet email saying she was so grateful for The Boy being a good friend to Prickly Kid because he can be, well, a prickly kid, and would we like to get together for a play date. And of course I said yes, because how sweet of her to like The Boy! When she suggested we go to an indoor play space that has a restaurant/bar attached to it, I knew she was one of us.

And of course, we had a delightful time and drank wine while the kids ran wild in the indoor play area. It was awesome. Here I had a new friend to drink wine with, and Prickly Kid, who had trouble making friends, had The Boy, and The Boy had Prickly Kid, and everyone was happy.

Every classroom has a Prickly Kid. The Boy told me just this morning that there is a new kid to the school who is a Prickly Kid, who is in his class this year. I asked The Boy if he would be willing to hang out with New Prickly Kid, and help him settle in, and he said he would think about it.

The thing is, you don’t have to be a Prickly Kid to have trouble making friends when you are new to a school. Shy Kids have the same trouble, as do Frightened By Change Kids, Sensitive Kids, Kids With Autism, Kids With Unusual Names, Fat Kids, Skinny Kids, Kids Who Climb On Rocks…you get where I am going with this. It is hard being the new kid, period.

And it isn’t easy for the non-new kids to integrate a new kid into an existing social circle. The Boy was worried about how his existing friends would react to him inviting New Prickly Kid to sit with them at lunch. The Boy is awesome, but he isn’t some superhero who can overcome all peer pressure and say “fuck it, I choose kindness over fear” every time.

But the stakes are much lower for me as a parent. For me to email another kid’s parent and say “Hey, play date sometime?” is waaaaaay less scary than it is for The Boy to ask a kid to sit with him at lunch. Which is why I will be emailing New Prickly Kid’s mom to see if they would want to do a play date with us. Because, that is what I hope someone would do for me if my kid was the new kid in school.

I don’t often ask you, dear readers, to take any action, but I hope this post will encourage you to reach out to the new kid’s family to see about a play date. Because welcoming newcomers to our community is the right thing to do. And besides, maybe New Prickly Kid’s mom likes wine too.

Goodbye, Hooker Wagon

I briefly had a blog several years ago about my experiences riding the bus to and from work. As I have shared before, I live in a neighborhood directly adjacent to a major road that has a lot of no-tell motels, and thus a lot of seriously sketchy individuals. This means the bus that runs down that road, which goes to downtown Seattle and to my (former) office, has a lot of sketchy individuals riding it. I’ve learned valuable lessons on that bus, such as “Don’t get kicked out of rehab in winter, if you’re living on the street, your heroin could freeze.” And it’s provided a shitload of free entertainment over the years. I often referred to that bus as The Hooker Wagon.

Perhaps the most memorable of my rides, though, came on my last day of work. I went in for a half day of paperwork and I took The Boy with me–first, because school hadn’t started up yet, and second, because it was his last chance to come to work with Mom before she “retired.” So, on the way home, we were riding the bus during midday, rather than during typical commuting hours. This meant that the ratio of commuters to hookers/drug addicts heavily favored the hookers/drug addicts.

The Boy selected a pair of seats for us near the back of the bus. Now, if you have ever ridden a bus with a high ratio of hookers/drug addicts on it, you know that the back is probably an extremely poor choice of seats, unless you want to learn where to score some meth. But, to be fair, that was the only spot on the bus with two open seats together. And, the seats he picked were directly in front of another family, with two kids, so at least he wouldn’t be the only kid learning where to score some meth? So, to the back we went. I immediately pulled out his earphones–the kind that cancel out some noise, thankfully–and an iPad, and plugged him into his electronics for the long ride home.

In the very back, a few seats away from us, sat a woman who was high. Or, I hope she was high, and not just totally inappropriate–she was certainly loud, and used a lot of profanity. At least, she did at first. Then a few stops later, she realized there were kids on the bus, and then she very loudly apologized for using profanity. I smiled at her as if to say “Dude, he has me for a mom, he knows the swears, it’s cool. Also, noise-canceling headphones.”

The next stop, a couple of methadone clinic patrons got on the bus. I know they were methadone clinic patrons because they were discussing their methadone clinic. Now, High Woman was SHOCKED! SHOCKED! that they would discuss drug use in front of The Children, so she did her version of Mrs. Lovejoy and yelled “Hey fuckwads, stop talking about drugs, don’t you fuckers see there are kids on this bus, show some fucking respect!” The Methadone Man and his friend were like “Dude, chill out, we’re just talking about methadone” and High Woman was all “Everybody knows you talkin’ ’bout drugs, show some fucking respect!” She kept using that word “respect.” I don’t think it means what she thinks it means.

Luckily, before keeping it real could go wrong, she got off the bus, and at that same stop, a friend of Methadone Man got on the bus. He seemed like he might have been mildly stoned? (It’s legal here!) He was happy to see Methadone Man and his friend, and the three of them chatted about football for a while–the Seahawks were playing Green Bay the next day, so they were disagreeing in a friendly way about who was going to win. Mildly Stoned Guy turned to me and said, “You know anything about football?” And I said, “Just a little” and he said, “You know what happened with Green Bay last year, right? With that bad call? I think they gonna be hungry.” And I said, “Like we were after that call for the Steelers in the Super Bowl, it made us want it more the next year.” And he turns to his friends and says, “SEE?!?! She gets it! That’s what I’ve been saying this whole bus ride!” And we all laughed.

They talked football a bit more and then Mildly Stoned Guy says, “Hey, are you a prosecutor or a defense lawyer?” And I thought “Wow, do I really look that much like a lawyer? Just as I’m quitting, I finally nailed the look.” And I said, “Neither, actually, I’m an education lawyer. Or I was, today was my last day, I quit.” And he said, “Can I ask why?” And I said, “Yeah, I have cancer.” And they all said how sorry they were, and Methadone Man said, “Hey, I had cancer, in my liver. They found it in the joint. I’ve been well for 10 years now.” I told him that was great, and asked if they gave him good medical care inside, and he said, “Yeah, it was great, actually!”

We chatted some more until it was our stop, and Methadone Man asked me my name, and said he’d be praying for me. I thanked him, and when we got off the bus, The Boy said, “Why did he ask you your name?” And I said, “Because he wanted to pray for me, isn’t that nice?” And The Boy said, “What was his name?” And I said, “How rude of me, I forgot to ask him! Next time we see him, we’ll ask him.”

But, I won’t be riding the Hooker Wagon much anymore, let alone riding it with The Boy. So, Methadone Man, if you’re reading this, I am sorry I forgot to ask you your name, and I hope your cancer stays in remission. Also, I was wrong about Green Bay, they must not have been hungry after all.

Beth’s Classic Film Club: The Snake Pit

It’s been a while since we sat down with some box wine and a really classic movie, hasn’t it? So we’d better pick a really good one, huh? Well, this next one is disturbing, moving, and uplifting, all at once. From 1948, it’s The Snake Pit.

Olivia De Havilland is the genius who played the angelic Melanie Hamilton in Gone with the Wind. In The Snake Pit, she plays a woman institutionalized because of mental illness. In the parlance of the times, they would call her particular condition a nervous breakdown, caused by some trauma in her past.

Now, as someone who worked for a disability advocacy agency that represented people in mental hospitals, what I find most disturbing about this film is how little these hospitals have changed over the years. When I last toured one in 2000, it looked exactly like the one in this film does. I’m not kidding. I would imagine there is a lot less electroshock therapy and lobotomies going on these days than in the era of this film, and the medications have gotten a lot better…but the physical living conditions, not so much.

De Havilland’s character struggles to reach mental health, and it isn’t an easy road. She moves from ward to ward, as her connection to reality alternately gets better and then worse, helped and hindered by kind and cruel medical professionals, and the film is clearly an indictment of doctors and nurses who lack compassion. At all times, she is motivated in her struggle towards wellness by a desire to get the fuck out of that hospital, and from my work, I’d say that is a pretty common for those living in mental institutions today.

The cinematography is pretty cool, with some really visually memorable scenes, but what really makes this film, of course, is the acting, especially De Havilland’s. She has a gift for playing characters who are vulnerable but with an inner strength that shines through. And Betsy Blair, who plays another patient, is equally outstanding.

So, grab your popcorn and box wine and maybe a box of Kleenex if you’re the weepy type like me, and check out The Snake Pit. And let me know what you think in the comments!

Returning to Cancerland

Before the mastectomy, I approached my cancer treatment with enthusiasm. I mean, chemo sucks, and radiation makes you tired and sunburnt, but killing cancer kicks ass, and I was just so happy to be doing SOMETHING. Having cancer is kind of like having a cockroach infestation–the first one you find, you’re like “OH FUCK KILL IT KILL IT KILL IT RIGHT NOW OMG SO GROSS” and you just want the exterminator to come over and get rid of the roaches RIGHT THIS MINUTE. So, you’re happy to get chemo, because it’s like having an exterminator come in and clean things out. Same with radiation. When that exterminator shows up, you’re elated. You practically leap through the oncology department’s doors on your way to your first round of chemo.

That’s what happened the first time I had treatment. Then the mastectomy happened, and that was really emotionally traumatizing and it almost broke me. But then I had this long break before starting radiation and chemo again. And during that break, I slowly got back to a normal energy level, and my hair started to grow back, and I started to feel like me again.

But now I am headed back into treatment, this time six weeks of radiation with chemo in pill form during those six weeks. And maybe more IV chemo after that. It’s like having the roaches come back–and metastatic cancer means those cancer roaches always come back–and because you’ve already been through the roach experience before, you’re not freaking the fuck out like you did the first time around. Instead of doing a happy dance when the exterminator comes, you’re more like, “Hey, thanks man. I mean, I wish I didn’t need you to be here again because I had hoped we were done with all these poisonous chemicals and shit, but I guess not. Sigh.”

So, it’s hard to muster the enthusiasm I had with the first go-round of treatment. I’m starting to realize that for whatever time I have left, which I hope will be a long time, I am probably going to be doing this crap over and over again, and the break I just got is going to be more of an exception than a norm. It’s hard to get excited about treatment when it’s now my default setting.

But, excited or not, here I go again, back into Cancerland, because honestly, I can’t live in a house filled with roaches. That’s just creepy. So, I’m shaking my oncologist’s hand, giving him a pair of “My Oncologist is my Homeboy” beer glasses as a wedding gift, and saying “Alrighty, let’s go kill some shit.” As Frank Underwood says: let the butchery begin. Again.

Why I love family vacations

I am on a vacation with my family right now. It’s afternoon nap time for The Girl as I write this, and The Hubs is off doing something fun with The Boy, so I have a few quiet minutes to do laundry and think about why I like to take vacations with my two small children. This may be the last big, plane-trip-taking, more-than-a-week vacation we can realistically afford for a while, since I will be taking a pay cut as part of my disability retirement, but assuming I am well enough, I plan on making sure we still take some vacations, because I think they are good for us.

I have heard lots of arguments against family vacations. Some people say “They’re too small to remember the trip, why even bother taking them?” Well, they’re too small to remember a trip to the park or the zoo either, so should I just lock us up in our house and never leave it? Seriously, that is the dumbest argument I have ever heard. People who make this argument: try again.

Some people say that it’s too expensive to take vacations for a family. And I say, that depends on the vacation you take. A camping trip costs practically nothing–you need a couple of blue tarps, some rope, a few sleeping bags, and a cast iron skillet. Bam! Instant vacation. A trip to Europe can be extremely pricey, especially if you live on the west coast like I do. Every family can afford different things, and every family prioritizes their money differently.

Some people say it’s too much work traveling with kids and not enough fun. I think these are people who compare traveling without kids to traveling with kids, and yeah, it IS a lot more work traveling with kids. But everything is more work when you have kids, not just travel. You have to be mindful that the small people in your life have needs just like the big people do, is all. And you have to do that at home as well as on the road.

I loved to travel before I had kids for reasons that don’t go away just because there are kids along for the ride. I like the change of pace that travel brings, and I like doing things I wouldn’t normally do in my everyday life. And I love watching my kids have new experiences too, and learn what they can do if I only let them try. Who knew The Boy wouldn’t be even remotely afraid of that zip line? Who knew The Girl was so good at walking up and down stairs on her own?

Beyond that, there are the memories The Hubs and I will carry, even if The Kids don’t. Especially The Hubs. I have a feeling he’ll be glad we took this trip in 10 years, even if though we are both sick of listening to The Boy complain about having to try new foods, and even if we are tired from carrying The Girl back to our hotel while fighting off a cold. Nothing in life is perfect, not even family vacations, but that doesn’t mean they’re not great.