Thursday, June 30, 2011

Adventures in Chicago Part I: Bloch Cancer Survivors Park

Cancer Survivors Plaza, Chicago
I can't remember the last time I had an actual vacation, but I can tell you that I was really looking forward to a weekend with friends in Chicago, and it was fantastic.  Four of us arrived on Friday and checked into the chic WIT Hotel in the theater district.  After a glass of wine on the 26th floor roof top bar, we headed to Lincoln Park for some fabulous Thai food at Aroy Thai.

We could see the famous "Bean" in Millennium Park from the hotel, and Saturday morning, a couple of us headed off to see it up close.  Purely by accident, we came across a beautiful garden, with Bloch Cancer Survivors Plaza at the entrance. Kismet?

From the R.A. Bloch Cancer Foundation website: "In 1978, Richard Bloch, co-founder and honorary chairman of the board of H & R Block, Inc. was diagnosed with “terminal” lung cancer. With the help of his wife, Annette, doctors who said he could beat the cancer, and his own determination, Bloch waged a bitter two-year war on the insidious disease. So dramatic was his fight and recovery that Bloch and his wife devoted their lives to helping others stricken with cancer."

They've built these gardens throughout the country, see a visual tour here.

Entrance to Cancer Survivors Garden
The entrance to the garden is framed by two large Gothic columns and an iron arch of triumph.

Beautiful View from the Garden Entrance
Row of Column Planters
Close-Up of Flower Column
In between the column planters were inspirational plaques:

Damn Good Advice
One of mine was the trip to Chicago!
The garden continues towards Lake Michigan and Lakeshore Drive.

View from the end of the garden
And ends with this odd installation of orange and yellow sprayed trees.

Looks like where dead trees go instead of the landfill
It was a beautiful day and a pleasant stroll through the garden.  I'll have to look up where the Cleveland garden is.  I spent yesterday weeding and deadheading my own garden, and said a prayer of thanks that I am around to see it bloom another year.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Hair's Looking at You!

Here comes the hair again
I haven't written an update on my life as a full-time cancer patient for awhile for a couple of reasons.  First, I am tired of it already.  The six weeks after chemo were pretty brutal.  It all seemed to catch up, and I felt weak, exhausted, and totally beat up.  I lost my favorite cat, Jake, who spent the last six months constantly on my lap.  At nearly 17, he did his best to stick it out to the end, but after my last chemo, I knew it was time to say goodbye.  Even though it nearly killed me.

Jake's final resting spot overlooking the garden

Then followed seven weeks of daily visits to the hospital for radiation (some days, two trips, if an infusion or follow up visit was scheduled).  The treatment itself doesn't take but a couple of minutes, and AGMC conveniently lets you park right by the door, so you're in and out.  I was the last appointment of the day,  4:40, and was on time except for one day when there was an hour back-up, which is pretty remarkable when you think about it.  (They changed appointment intervals from 15 to 20 minutes, which really helped)

The first five weeks were no big deal.  Then it started to look like I'd laid out in the sun with one of the girls exposed. It started to itch.  And then by week six it was burnt, raw, and weeping underneath.  A bra was out of the question.  I didn't make many public appearances that week.  Of course, every time I did, I'd run into someone I knew. A giant vat of cream was dispensed to prevent infection, but it didn't really do anything to address the pain. 

One of my radiology techs explained it like this: Radiation is like getting kicked by a little girl.  It doesn't hurt much at first, but after six weeks, it starts  to get bad.  Then after she stops, it still hurts for a few weeks.   Which about sums it up. 

Just about when I was ready to yell "Uncle", they switch from from full breast radiation to a booster that targets just the area where your tumor was removed on the theory that is where the cancer is most likely to return.  I got a big green sharpie X (they'd noticed green was my favorite color after say, 26 trips) to mark the spot.  By the last week I was wearing stretchy workout bras 24 hours a day. 

So radiation is over.  I got a hug from one of the valets on my last visit.  And all in all, it wasn't that bad, but it sucks up a huge chunk of time, because even though the round trip and treatment amounted to a hour a day, you have to plan everything around that hour, then multiply by 35 days.  So it's a drag. 

I'm still on the 21 day infusion schedule for Herceptin.  I had one this week.  No real side effects, which is refreshing. 

The other reason I just didn't feel like writing about it, is that I've already gotten a "It's baaaack" scare.  I have to say, honestly, until that day I was pretty much whistling on the sunny side of the street.  The tumor is gone.  It hadn't spread.  And they have been bombing the ever loving shit out of me for six damn months.  How on earth could there be any more?

I had an ultrasound on an area that my surgeon wanted to check before radiation which everyone agreed was most likely some scar tissue.  Then I had a pre-radiation CAT scan. 

A couple of weeks into radiation, my radiology oncologist, who is as sweet as can be, but doesn't speak English very well, poked me in a new area, and all I caught was "New tumor...I'll talk to your surgeon...Biopsy".   She was gone before I started connecting the dots and my head started spinning.  I decided (after a very expensive bottle of wine - hey, why not?), to call my surgeon the next day and ask her what was going on. 

Which I did, and she was out of town for a week.  You can imagine how much fun that week was for me.    I did a few "can't take it with you" shopping sprees.  Thankfully I did it at the garden center, where the worst damage was a $60 peony. 

I stopped by the surgeon's office to ask to have her call me, and ran into her, so she saw me right away.  I told her what happened.  She said she'd check the films and talk to the other doc.  When she pulled up my files, she noted that I'd had a CT in 2007.  Said she'd check that film against the new one.   But we also discussed the possibility of it being a chemo-resistant tumor (WTF, is what I was thinking), and the possibility of mastectomy and reconstruction.  She promised to check everything out and call me the next day. 

Turns out whatever the hell it was, which is not even really on my breast, it's in between, was there on 2007 film, and after discussion all around, was determined nothing to be worried about.  Thanks, can I get the two years just scared off my life back? 

So I am grateful that it is indeed not back.  Can you imagine running the marathon, getting past the side stitches, puke your guts out phase, almost getting to the finish line and being told to go back to the starting line?  Me neither. 

My appetite is back, my taste buds have returned from hiatus, and I am no longer a stranger at the gym.  And my hair is coming back, as you can see.  Some days I forget that I am still nearly bald, but the looks I get in public, ranging from that half pity smile, to confusion, remind me.  I think the two bald by choice ladies competing on The Voice are feeding the confusion - lol.

There was an article in the New York Times this week with a list of what not to say to the sick.  I don't totally agree with his list.  "What can I do for you?" was his number one, and he suggested just plunging in and cleaning the fridge, doing the dishes, etc.  My number one is "Call me if you need anything".  It's nice, lots of people say it, but it's a chip that never gets cashed in.  Even the night I was laying on the floor after a bout of dry heaves and vertigo.

The one person who called me regularly and asked "What can I do for you?" is the one that helped me the most.  And I'm really going to miss her when she moves to Chicago. 

The article author also dissed "Sending you thoughts and prayers".  I appreciated those; can't hurt, might help.  The shiny new bible and unsolicited supplements, not so much.  "You look good", he hates as well.  Doesn't bother me.  Even if you are lying. 

Through this journey I have learned that there are always people who stun you with their ability to kick you when you're down (Quote from ex-relative:  "Dude, chemo....that's so rough....Does someone have to take you (meaning: not me)?" Adult woman, in case you were confused by the "Dude"), and that there are people who will delight you with their presence and support when you need it the most.  Fuck the former and bless the latter.  Amen.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Where's Grandpa? A Gardening Story

Low Hanging Fruit - Boughton Farms Strawberries
I'm just back from my second picking session at Boughton Farm, conveniently located about a mile from my house.   Strawberry season is brief, so you need to fill up while you can and tuck some away in the freezer, or make jam.  Fresh, local strawberries are nothing like the giant, hollow, vaguely tasteless ones available year-round in plastic clamshell containers. 

As I was picking, I remembered a funny story from my childhood.  (Aunt Alice - you'll remember this one!)  My grandfather had a fairly good sized vegetable garden.  There were a few rows of strawberries, mulched with straw, like the fields at Boughton Farm.  The berries were small and sweet, and tasted like sunshine. 

Family gathered on the long front porch, relaxing on the aluminum lawn furniture (I was partial to the glider) on a warm, summer day.  Cocktail hour was regularly rung in with a Highball for each of my grandparents. (My grandmother had a large collection of crocheted glass cozies that she referred to as pants, as in "Bob, don't forget to put pants on your Highball", which prevented the dreaded ring on the end table). 

My grandfather was a slight man, and he had a big backpack garden sprayer, which at this stage, I am pretty sure I don't want to know what it contained, but he strapped it on and disappeared into the garden somewhat regularly.  

On this particular occasion, after he'd gone missing for awhile, someone said "Where's Grandpa?"  A search ensued.  Turns out Grandpa might have had an extra strong Highball and was flat on his back like an overturned turtle, backpack attached, tucked among the garden rows.  The memory still cracks me up.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Simply Smoking Good Summer Meal

Copper River Salmon & Local Asparagus on Cedar Plank

I tried many times to feel the love for salmon, but it always had a weird, dirty aftertaste, and I just couldn't get into it.  I decided to give it one more shot when the Copper River Salmon started arriving in stores.  Oh my - what a revelation!  It's delicious!

I first tried it a week or so ago, and sought suggestions from my salmon loving friends.  I ended up drizzling it with olive oil, topping it with some chopped garlic and fresh herbs, and baking it in a foil packet.

This week it was time to find the cedar planks someone had gifted me many moons ago, that had luckily not made it to the yard sale pile yet. (I swear it looks like I am auditioning for Hoarders; can't wait to get this stuff out of here).

I hit the West Side Market for the first time in a long while on Friday.  It was nice to see the smiling faces and chat with my favorite vendors, including the Kate's Fish Crew, where I got this lovely piece of Copper River Sockeye, and Basketeria, where I scored the last of the local organic asparagus. 

I decided to go with a Lemon, Vodka, Dill Marinade from Diane Morgan's Grill Every Day: 125 Fast-Track Recipes for Weeknights at the Grill.  I tossed the asparagus in too since there was plenty of marinade.

Here is a video of Diane making the recipe (I did mine directly over the burner at medium heat; she uses indirect heat in the video.  My plank was thin, but can be reused):

Earlier this week I picked four heaping quarts of local (as in a mile from my house) strawberries at Boughton Farms.  The strawberry aroma in that field on a warm, sunny day was just amazing.  Fresh strawberries call for shortcakes, don't they?

I decided on this Sweet Corn Shortcake recipe from Midwest Living.  I didn't bother doing anything to the berries other than than rinsing, hulling, and slicing.  I used dried buttermilk powder, reconstituted, and 2% Snowville Creamery milk.  I only managed to get nine, not the dozen called for, when I spooned them onto a parchment lined sheet.

I really loved the crunch the cornmeal provided, plus they were light and a perfect complement to the sweet berries.  I also skipped the whipped cream and just ate more berries.  Ok, and another shortcake.

Sweet Corn Shortcake & Fresh, Local Strawberries

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Chicken and Egg: A Memoir of Suburban Homesteading with 125 Recipes

Brunty Farms Chickens
Ever fantasized about keeping a few chickens as pets and enjoying a bounty of fresh eggs?  I have, but fortunately Jeff & Mel from Brunty Farms do all of the hard work, and I just get to enjoy the eggs and chicken as part of my CSA.  CSA and farming season is off to a bit of a difficult start this year due to the nearly constant rain for most of the spring, which has pushed back farmers ability to get plants into the ground and thriving.

But the chicken and eggs have started coming, so I was delighted when I found Janice Cole's new book, Chicken and Egg: A Memoir of Suburban Homesteading with 125 Recipes, for sale in a "real" bookstore, Fireside Books, in Chagrin Falls.

Although her husband wasn't as excited about the idea of having chickens as pets, Janice ordered an Eglu chicken house, got three baby chicks, and let the adventures begin.  Between the seasonally arranged recipe chapters, she shares hints & tips for future backyard chicken keepers, and documents her first year with her "girls", Lulu, Cleo, and Roxanne.

The recipes, featuring either chicken or eggs, are mouth watering.  I selected the Charred Tandoori Chicken with Mint, and the Blueberry Sour Cream Tart as my first recipes to try from the book, but I have several others tagged to make soon.  

I contacted Janice, and she generously agreed to allow me to share a recipe with you.

Charred Tandoori Chicken with Mint - Used with permission from Chicken and Egg: A Memoir of of Suburban Homesteading with 125 Recipes, Janice Cole, Chronicle Books, 2011

8 oz plain yogurt (I used my last jar of homemade yogurt)
4 garlic cloves, coarsely chopped
1" piece of ginger, coarsely chopped
3 T canola oil
2 T fresh lemon juice
1 T ground cumin
1 T ground coriander
1 T paprika
1 t kosher salt
1/2 t pepper
1/4 t cayenne
1/4 c chopped mint, plus 1 T
8 pieces of chicken

Measure all ingredients, except mint and chicken, in blender and blend until smooth. Stir in 1/4 c mint.

Cut three 1/2 = 1" deep slits in each piece of chicken to allow marinade to penetrate. Drop chicken in bag and pour mix over and massage to coat. Marinate 6 hours or overnite.

Preheat grill to medium. Oil grill grate. Grill chicken, covered, turning every 5 minutes, til cooked thru, about 25-30 min. Move to cooler area of grill if browning too quickly.

Serve with chopped mint for garnish.

Here is the Sour Cream Blueberry Tart.  It was delicious! The recipe called for orange zest, but I didn't have one on hand, so I subbed a teaspoon of orange flower water.  Janice glazed her berries with warmed red currant jelly; I used the Blackberry with a Hint of Bourbon I made last summer.  Awesome!

I am looking forward to trying more of the recipes, and there are plenty in the book to choose from.  

Blueberry Sour Cream Tart 

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Pork Tenderloin with Grilled Rhubarb-Onion Sauce

I haven't eaten a lot of rhubarb, except in pie, but 'tis the season, so I picked up a bunch at the farmers market, along with fresh pork tenderloin from Brunty Farms.  I turned up a promising sounding recipe at for Roast Pork with Sweet Onion-Rhubarb Sauce, but thought I might tweak it a bit by grilling the pork and the rhubarb and onions.

I cut the the onion and rhubarb into fairly large pieces, but in retrospect, I should have cut them much smaller.  I tossed them with a couple of tablespoons of dark brown sugar and a couple of tablespoons of turbinado sugar and let things macerate while I prepped the pork and heated the grill.

Here's my version of the recipe:

Grilled Pork with Grilled Sweet-Onion Rhubarb Sauce

1 t. ground coriander
Salt & Pepper
1 pork tenderloin, trimmed
2 T. dark brown sugar
2 T. turbinado sugar
1 bunch of rhubarb, chopped into 1/2" pieces
1/2 large sweet onion, chopped into 1/2" pieces
1/4 c. water
2 T. Olive Tap Passionfruit Balsamic Vinegar
1/4 - 1/2 c. brown sugar
chopped chives for garnish

Heat grill to medium -high.

Rub pork tenderloin with coriander and salt & pepper.  Toss rhubarb and onion with dark brown and turbinado sugars in a large bowl and allow to macerate at room temperature. 

Oil grill grate on side where you will be cooking the pork, then add pork, sear on both sides, then reduce heat and cook to 145 degrees.   Meanwhile, on other side of the grill add the rhubarb and onion to a grill basket and cover grill.  Toss or stir the rhubarb mixture every few minutes, cook until tender.

While pork is resting, put the rhubarb mixture in a saucepan (either on grill burner, or stovetop) and add a little water, the vinegar and brown sugar.  Simmer until softened and the rhubarb is broken down.  Taste and add more sugar if too tart. 

Grilled Pork Tenderloin w/Grilled Rhubarb-Onion Sauce