Friday, April 16, 2010

Book launch and jazz show April 22, Boston!

I have exciting news and an invitation to all of Boston: Please rearrange your life and join me, Thursday night at Scullers Jazz Club!

The news: I’m announcing my first book. It'll be out in June. Cover art is at left.

It's my story then and now: excerpts from my online CaringBridge journal, interwoven with what I’ve since learned about e-patients and participatory medicine.

The title reflects the mind-powered approach I took to my “prognosis is grim” disease. (More on this below.)

The invitation is for all of New England to come celebrate and honor a singer who was a huge, powerful force during the course of the disease: my sister Suede. (Yes, that’s her name.)

She’s performing Thursday, April 22 at Sculler’s Jazz Club in Boston. One show only. Tickets:

With four CDs and a live DVD to her credit, Suede is a self-made independent artist with a phenomenal stage presence. Be prepared to be owned by the diva for the entire evening. You’ll see what I mean.

All New England, please come join us! It’s a dual celebration – Suede rarely plays Boston (she’s more often found on Olivia Cruises), and I’ve never published a book. April 22, 8 pm. Best seats go to those who buy the dinner/show package.

Q & A follows. "Do it!," as Suede says during one of her songs. :-)

What’s the title about??

It's the approach I chose to take to the news that I had a lethal cancer - a summary of the advice I got in the first few weeks after diagnosis, before I even started my journal:

  • "Laugh" is for the healing power of laughter, as famously discussed by Saturday Review editor Norman Cousins in his book Anatomy of an Illness
  • "Sing" is the advice my doctor gave. I had asked if I should drop out of my much-loved championship chorus to save energy, but he said, "You don't want to stop doing life activities that you love - it sends the wrong message." Wow. So, okay, laugh and sing! Not bad.
  • "Eat like a pig" refers to the diet the hospital sent me, to increase my caloric intake, to combat weight loss and prepare for the battle ahead.
Admittedly, "laugh, sing and eat like a pig" is not a conventional approach to a deadly diagnosis. But that's kind of the point. And the whole story is true, every word.

Why a book with this message?

4,000 people a day (in the US alone) discover they have cancer, and face that moment of "What on earth do I do NOW??" I know that feeling. Some look for what to do next; others don't even think they can do anything — they just think they're screwed and go into depression. This book is about hope, getting it in gear, and going "e." (E-patients are "empowered, engaged, equipped, enabled, and educated.")

What does Suede have to do with it?

"Laugh Sing" is about facing the unfaceable with power and grace, and nobody was a stronger influence than my sister Suede.

She taught me to have a powerful relationship to the disease (all explained in the book) and not be owned by it. She taught me what she learned about facing death from her years working with patients in the AIDS epidemic. She brought people from her extraordinary fan base to join our support group on CaringBridge.

Most incredibly, she organized an impossible effort to solve another challenge I’ve rarely discussed: The whole time I was sick we owned an extra house.

We’d lived in the Midwest for a while before something told us we had to get home to New England. We put that house up for sale in 2006, just as the market hit the skids, though nobody knew it yet; we thought it would sell soon.

Then I found out I wasn’t getting the job that was 99% (not 100%) certain. So for months I owned two houses with no income. I found a job. And three months later I learned I had Stage IV cancer.

The value of both houses started dropping. 30%, eventually. So, while I was sick we also had carrying costs for two houses on a one-house budget. And not even any showings on the old house. It felt crushing, but we were focused on just staying alive. First things first.

Then, we got an offer. For $18,000 less than we owed.

What did Suede do? She organized an incredible campaign and put on a benefit concert – she and her community raised the $18,000. So, in September 2007 we sold that house and got the official word that I’d survived. It was a very good month.

Join us. Celebrate the book, Suede, and life!

You can see what a powerful, wonderful, amazing woman this soulful singer is. She will own you for that evening.

At the benefit concert my physician Dr. Danny Sands and wife Libby came to the first half of the show. He was blown away: at halftime they were trying to decide which CDs to buy, and they decided they had to stay for the second half to hear more songs.

That's how good she is. (He later said “We came for you, but we stayed for Suede.”)

Let’s sell out the house! Bring friends! Rearrange your life for this rare show - buy tickets. Celebrate life!

Sunday, April 11, 2010

When I Leave the World Behind

Work is underway on a book I promised several years ago to write. It’s extracts from my cancer journal on CaringBridge - the cancer story itself, and how I used everything at my disposal to help my cause: the internet, great medical care, and the power of attitude. Woven throughout are observations on how e-patient principles are changing the process of disease (and health). At the time I’d never heard of an “e-patient,” but what my support community and I were doing exemplified it.

The book's work is being driven by my long-time associate George Alexander, who is also the publisher.

It’s been emotionally hard to dig back through those journal posts, because those were scary times. The chapter I’m working on now is about hope, so yesterday I read Jerome Groopman’s book The Anatomy of Hope. It's filled with stories of being with patients as they faced probable death, and the physician’s journey of learning to help them deal with it.

I cried as I recalled facing my own death. It was accentuated by recent events:

  • Fellow kidney cancer patient Rick Schleider died last month.
  • My classmate Don Levinstone lost his fight with pervasive lung cancer last month.
  • Last week my dear singer-sister Suede's longtime companion dog Angel died. Angel was a miracle dog, an abused stray who lived on a highway median for months before being rescued. Suede adopted her and gave her a life she never would have known. The loss is hard on her.
  • Today’s CBS Sunday Morning had a Katie Couric segment on children who lose a parent. (5% do, before age 15.) The family photos and the footage of the children’s words, their loss, brought me back to the thought of leaving my family behind.
And that brought me back to my own father’s death in 2005, when I lived a thousand miles away. Traveling to see him wasn’t easy. The last time I left him in the care facility I said I’d be back soon and kissed his forehead. His last words to me were “That will be nice.” All signs were that the end was near, and it was.

That night I attended the annual concert of my sister Amy’s excellent Sweet Adelines chorus The Pride of Baltimore. The headline act was Wheelhouse, a champion quartet whose signature song is When I Leave the World Behind. Irving Berlin's beautiful lyrics [below] flooded me; I sat there with tears running down my face, thinking of my dad's departure from this world.

Today that song came back to me as I heard the children talk. I found Wheelhouse's performance on YouTube, and found myself sobbing with feelings I hadn’t touched in three years, a much needed catharsis.

Here it is; the lyrics are below. (This handheld video is shaky at first but it settles down.) [2020 update: that video is gone from YouTube, but here's one by another championship level quartet.]

When I Leave the World Behind
Irving Berlin, 1915
I know a millionaire
Who's burdened down with care
A load is on his mind
He's thinking of the day
When he must pass away
And leave his wealth behind
I haven't any gold
To leave when I grow old
Somehow it passed me by
I'm very poor but still
I'll leave a precious will
When I must say good-bye

I'll leave the sunshine to the flowers
I'll leave the springtime to the trees

And to the old folks, I'll leave the mem'ries
Of a baby upon their knees

I'll leave the night time to the dreamers
I'll leave the songbirds to the blind

I'll leave the moon above
To those in love
When I leave the world behind

[2nd verse:]
To every wrinkled face
I'll leave a fireplace
To paint their fav'rite scene
Within the golden rays
Scenes of their childhood days
When they were sweet sixteen
I'll leave them each a song
To sing the whole day long
As toward the end they plod
To ev'ry broken heart
With sorrow torn apart
I'll leave the love of God

I'll leave the sunshine to the flowers
I'll leave the springtime to the trees

And to the old folks, I'll leave the mem'ries
Of a baby upon their knees

I'll leave the night time to the dreamers
I'll leave the songbirds to the blind

I'll leave the moon above
To those in love
When I leave
the world
I’m so glad to still be alive, alive to keep loving those things for a few more years. Thanks to all of you who were with me then, and thanks to all of you who work today to make a world of better healthcare.