Marie Louise Meyers: Hang in There Girls!

Last summer I interviewed my classmate Marie Louise (Mary Lou) Meyers in order to review her wonderful poetry book, Whisperings Along the Octoraro. (To see that review, go to  the right hand side of the website and click on July 2009. The review should come up or you may have to click back a page or two.) During our conversation, I learned she was a cancer survivor, so I sent her some questions and asked her to write about her experience, printed below.  She also sent me a poem from her new book-in-the-works, Floating Free, which I hope to review when it is published.  We both agreed that sometimes a painful or difficult experience is a great teacher.
P.S. All the photos are from this summer, when I met with Mary Lou & David at beautiful Longwood Gardens.

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Mary Lou with husband David

Here are Mary Lou’s own words:

Eleven years ago, I was diagnosed with breast cancer.  I remember knowing from the moment the dimpled mass appeared on my right breast.  Even the first surgeon was convinced that the biopsy would prove negative, but there was something about the eruption that didn’t appear normal to me.  When the results were positive for breast cancer, I was under quite a bit of pressure to get the surgery completed.

“One time, one time only in the operating room,” the surgeon promised for the lumpectomy.  In the interim, my mother had a massive stroke, which gave me the pause I needed to reevaluate my situation.  My son, who was working closely with breast surgeons doing training films, advised seeing Dr. Jablon at Albert Einstein Hospital, who was then one of the few doctors doing Sentinel Node Biopsy.  I switched doctors and used Dr. Jablon.

After removing the lump, there were still errant cells around the periphery, which made another surgery necessary, saving my life.  Getting more than one opinion is essential, and going with a physician you trust from the outset and can speak freely to is paramount.  Going for the best surgeon, who believes in taking the time to remove all the cancer cells and yet doing it in a cosmetically pleasing way, aids your recovery.

Cancer cells are always present in the body, but a weakened immune system allows these cells to flourish.  I was run over by a 175 hp motorboat in the late 1980s, and not only did it result in physical repercussions, but the mental strain was also an accompaniment.  Not much was known about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder then, outside of the battlefield, but I had the signs and symptoms.  After accidents or disease, you have a clearer perspective of your needs.

I decided to get a Master’s in Counseling.  Besides helping me deal with the impact of the accident, it also made me aware that pouring my soul out on paper was not only therapeutic, but my voice was strengthened, and I could speak with conviction about many of the issues which plagued me as well as other women.   I was still powerless to control so much of my life, I knew I had to work on it, but I was not the major breadwinner, and my teaching positions were not very lucrative.

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The move to Illinois for my new husband’s job with Amoco was difficult.  My daughter was just nineteen, a sophomore at the University of New Hampshire, but we were forced to find an apartment for her.  My husband’s retirement brought us back to our property in Pennsylvania, but it was a cultural shock, living in close proximity to the farming community and the Amish.  I also was afflicted with Lyme Disease, which further weakened my immune system.

We’ve always had a garden wherever we have lived, but my bout with cancer awakened me to the realization that I needed to get as much food from a natural source as possible, buying organic chicken and beef.  I have always lived a very active physical life, but even though I didn’t have a lake to swim or all the winter sports I enjoyed in New Hampshire, particularly cross-country skiing, we had a pond built, and I managed to get some weeks in of cross-country skiing on the property or nearby Watershed.  I am a faithful participant at the Y and each week I work on Nautilus Machines, reinforcing my strength, staving off osteoporosis.

“Stay on top of your game,” whatever your game might be!  Try to meet challenges you might otherwise have ignored, keeping the body and mind active, and avoid indulging in self-pity as much as you can.  Anger is far more productive in fighting off cancer than submitting to it.  Observe other cancer survivors around you, and you’ll discover your “attitude” plays a significant role in your recovery.

As soon as possible I resumed activities that I really cared about, and dropped the ones that I was involved in because of “outside” pressure.  Saying “no” isn’t enough; instead you have to say “Yes” to what really counts in your life.  Give yourself leave to write a list of priorities.  “Live each day as though it were your last!” Fill it with meaningful activities, and be bold in what you do.  You may never have another chance!

My new poetry book, Floating Free talks about many things which have happened to me, but in the end, I am able to be more of the person I didn’t really get to know until cancer struck, and then experiencing a kind of freedom I never felt before.

The poem below was written after I underwent cancer surgery.  It was read at Albert Einstein Hospital in 1998.  It caused quite a stir, some doctors “jumped out “of their petri dishes in astonishment.  It was meant to be upbeat, and though techniques may have changed, the sentiments are the same.  It’s not only the initial surgery, but each year’s mammogram reignites the fear surrounding this dreaded disease of so many women.  “Coping” personalizes the ongoing, yearly experience of mammograms.  (This poem was written this year.) You sit in dim lit hallways waiting for the news that will change your life for better or worse, developing bonds with the women frenetically pretending to read next to you.

Note: After sending me her story, Mary Lou sent this P.S. a few days later.

P.S. Knowing I was late in responding, I did a rather rapid reply to the questions.  Please include:  Although I know there have been other contributing factors responsible for the breast cancer, I believe HRT ranks number 1.  I was started on this program sometime after my accident not for hot flashes, but all the important reasons like protecting the heart and bones.  I would never have taken it if the accident hadn’t occurred, leaving me vulnerable.   When I asked the oncologist at Einstein Hospital what caused my breast cancer looking over my records, he said, Hormone Replacement Therapy.

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HANG IN THERE GIRLS!

“Hang in there girls,” I tell my breasts fondly.

I’ll take care of your needs though

I try to squeeze in the Y locker for privacy,

I’m finally getting to know you intimately.

In fact the three of us will become an inseparable team.

We can put our troubles on account,

but never lose sight of our dreams.

I hug all your natural resources,

adornment of my womanhood.

fountain of nourishment for my three children.

I have new found respect for you,

and we need each other for mutual support.

Nipples erect, an erotic display of sensitivity,

most of all you cleave to me quite naturally.

“Whoa girls,” you’re going too fast you know,

been down the hard bumpy road together,

I’m learning your etches and stretches like a road map.

Remember the day of the lumpectomy

when I tried my new bathing suit on,

inscribed on my skin with magic marker,

horizontal, vertical, and radial lines,

consequences of each according to Susan Love’s Bible.

In an adrenaline surge, I asked the surgeon her technique,

breaching the distance before the procedure.

What a relief Dr. Jablon said “crescent-shaped,”

cosmetically pleasing to you.

Don’t give me any grief now.

Remember what the intern said before my release:

“No weight lifting or bungie jumping for a week,”

It really cramped my style,

I tabled it for awhile in your best interests.

So don’t think you can hold your own

or even hide from my sight.

Cancer, the wild seed once sown

can spin out of control and reignite

though tempered under the surgeon’s knife

and stilled with radiation to cause a blight.

Don’t worry the tattoos they won’t be a fright!

Just abide with me girls,

enlightened now, I’ll treat you right

under my watchful eye

while rays of love and light

will stream down to my daughter.

I’m very attached to you,

I hold you lovingly with acclaim.

not ashamed if lemon-sized or cantaloupe,

erect, bouncy, dejected, swinging

ponderously low.

I’ll caress you with the mildest soap,

and shower and dress you with support.

You’ve infected me with your personality,

with or without your leave, I will inspect every

beauty mark, blemish, indentations, lump, rash or scar.

“Hang loose girls, let me do my thing.”

My immune system may have been on vacation,

but it’s getting right back on track

stacks of fruits, veggies, and antioxidants.

I don’t expect you to be a shrinking butterfly,

match my stride with free flowing exercise.

I’ll bend over so you can flap your wings once in awhile,

but be patient while I knead you like dough.

You may wiggle and dance to my beat

as my fingers play a silent concerto

across your nippled expanse and underneath.

Stay at attention as I drop you on the plate

of the mammogram for a diagram of your hidden secrets

once or twice a year to alleviate our worst fears

for you are the fortress of my defense.

(“We squeeze because we care,” they say in bold print).

Let’s get it all together girls and give it a whirl.

Don’t you fret we’ll start again on a par,

for I know I’ve neglected you from afar

by leading the unexamined life;

but I want to protect you now

for by doing so I protect my own life.

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COPING

Fumbling fingers undo bra straps, digging into loose flesh,

undress from the waist up in a pink smock.  I choose blue

to match my mood, blossom into Extra Large,

clutch at vital strings, hiding what I still can’t abide.

Was it something we did or didn’t do for hot flashes,

wrinkled skin, trying to compete with blooming youth,

keep husbands from going astray before

the dimpled cell had its way.  We all have beliefs

before we acknowledge grief.  It will go away on its own!

I try psycho-neuro-immunology, a word almost too absurd

to pursue, could its mastery, techniques of visualization,

a Healing Compress make the difference?

Some are still young and agile, in and out in a flash

to page through Woman’s Day and Screen Magazine,

as though it was just a precautionary tack,

too detached to browse through a copy of Coping,

with a star-studded cast hoping the cancer is arrested.

The rest slip into passive faces,

afraid to be too anxious or sad.

That fresh-faced Irish lady why is she here?

Can she have the gene which locks even the young in fear?

“You’ll be fine,” I say but her freckles pale to say,

“two sisters are stricken, mother is dead,” she no longer

believes in the fairness of life, makes deals instead.

“We compress because we care,” The sign is etched

across the face of the hardened technician as my smock

slides off my shoulder restrained by the machinery,

leaving me exposed as the years mount up a certain denial

of scars to take up a stoic smile, more like a grimace

as she begins her required torture on my bouncing deficits.

You squeeze Hope into five years. “a hallmark,” my surgeon

said, “we ought to have champagne to celebrate!”

It was as far as the statistics went on the chart I read.

The parade of walkers and wheelchairs keep coming,

one flourishes a cane as if she could do battle with Pain.

With a tentative smile, I grab the plain manilla envelope

outlining my fate, depositing fears at the surgeon’s gate.

Same time, same place, next year, but who’s keeping score!

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A special thanks to my classmate, Mary Lou Meyers, for generously sharing her story and poems with me and all of you! ellensue

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