Monday, July 1, 2013

"It's Always Something" - How I Wish Things Really Were

At its core, my novel, Sleeping in Snow with Bears, is about strong, inspirational women and how they got to be who they are. This post salutes one such strong real woman and those people and organizations who have been inspired by her to continue her fight.

Great battles are known for their fighters who inspire others to fight too. In the battle against ovarian cancer – quite literally a battle of a lifetime – there is one woman who stands out particularly well.

Back in the early days of the television show, Saturday Night Live (SNL), there was a lead character actor named Gilda Radner. She had multiple talents but is most well known for her comedic genius. Few have ever been funnier ... really.

Among others, Gilda had two particularly memorable characters on SNL. One was named, Emily Litella. Emily was a meek, half-deaf older woman who kept her hair pulled back in a tight bun. Her schtick was to complain, in a quiet, polite librarian-type way about some particular issue of the day that got in her craw. The other character - the antithesis of Emily - was Roseanne Rosannadanna. She was a tough, raised in the streets, unkempt young woman known for using gross-out humor and having zany, memorable lines, like "It's always something" (Not funny yet? Keep reading).

Both characters would come on during the "News" portion of SNL (separately of course) - in Emily's case, when the broadcast let citizens from the community speak their mind; and in Rosanna's case, during the "Commentary" portion of the program. You may have seen short features like these on your own local newscasts from time to time. Get the picture?

Anyhow, meek Emily (Gilda) would go on and on and on, getting riled up about her chosen community issue. What was funny, was that she was always wrong. And because she had misunderstood something simple, everyone including the audience was in on the mistake except for Emily who would keep going right on and on and on with her polite rant. Finally, the camera would pan out to the newscaster sitting at the news desk beside Emily who after considerable effort to get Emily's attention, manage to point out her error. Emily being meek Emily would then listen politely, sit quietly for a moment considering the correction she had just been told, and then timidly say,"Oh. (dramatic pause) Never mind." Gilda's comedic timing was perfect and this especially made everyone laugh (occasionally even the SNL cast).

I always wished Gilda could have done one of these skits about ovarian cancer, combining her best Emily and Roseanne Rosannadanna as one. I'll explain.

It would start out with the street-tough Roseanne spouting off some lines about how she'd just been told by "some phony baloney doctor in a white coat" that she had ovarian cancer. Just imagine. She'd continue, "It's always something." Then she'd go on and tell - in her best exaggerated nasely upper-mid west accent - all about the symptoms. How "the cancer makes you feel rotten all over", how "it makes you curl up like a ball of cat puke and you feel like you gonna die."

In my dream skit, Gilda (the combined Emily Roseanne) would be there on the set doing her (their) thing, getting all riled up and the newscaster would lean over and say, "No, Emily-Roseanne (one person in my dream), that wasn't a doctor in that white coat, that was a chef. And he didn't say you have ovarian cancer, he said you have 'onions 'n capers.' "

Emily Rosanne would then pause for an awkward moment and think about what she had just been told. And then she would timidly say, "Oh .... Never mind."

The sad thing is, in real life, Gilda couldn't say, "Oh .... Never mind." She couldn't because she didn't have "onions 'n capers". She really had ovarian cancer. While still a strong young woman, with a loving supportive husband at her side and millions of fans in her corner, Gilda succumbed to the disease at age of 42.

What we, the public, didn't find out until after her death was that during her struggle with her illness, Gilda was a frequent participant at The Wellness Community, in Santa Monica, CA. She mentions in her book, It's Always Something, how much she loved making people there laugh and how it helped her find her role again. At one point during a brief remission, Gilda made a surprise TV-short repeating Mark Twain's famous quote, "Reports of my demise have been greatly exaggerated."

More seriously, she said in her book, "I have the highest regard for the work of The Wellness Community. I wish there were a thousand more of them."

In Gilda's memory, her husband, Gene Wilder (also an actor) and a group of her friends delivered her wish by starting Gilda's Club, in New York City, based on the support-model Gilda loved so much. Since then, both Gilda's Club and The Wellness Community have thrived and in 2009 they decided to join forces. Today, they are known collectively as The Cancer Support Community – A Global Network of Education and Hope (some go by the name Cancer Support Community or CSC, others are called Gilda's Club or The Wellness Community).

Gilda's story is touching, but it is near to my heart for another reason – my mother had an ovarian cancer scare. Fortunately for Mom, her's was diagnosed early. She survived. Many are not so fortunate. As I type this, countless women are fighting this great battle – a battle for their lives. I can only imagine what it is really like – the pain, the uncertainty, the fear. Then add in the huge and important decisions one must make for one's family and oneself; and especially that primary one ... whether it's even worth fighting at all.

In the opening pages of my novel, Sleeping in Snow with Bears, we meet a character, Aimee, a young woman dealing with her own ovarian cancer crisis. She's already made up her mind. She doesn't know how to fight, has lost the will to try and is about to kill herself. The story is of the circular variety. It goes back in time and we learn cancer is but one of several huge problems she has. She thinks she is alone with nothing to live for, when actually she couldn't be more wrong, for there are reasons – far greater than she understands – that she must live. Her best friends, who are facing serious life-threatening danger themselves, are doing all they can to get to her before it is too late, and before long it is a race against time and all the obstacles that stand in their way.

Obviously, while "Bears" celebrates one fantastic approach to how a fictional dying woman dealt with her real life demons and finds meaning in her shortened life, and my imagined Gilda skit is of a crazy blended character who turns out to have made an even crazier mistake, both of these stories are imaginary. ... I wrote this short essay because these portrayals are how I wish cancer really was ... just imaginary ... make-believe.

Sadly, ovarian cancer (and others cancers) is not make-believe. It is real ... too real. Sufferers can't say, "Never mind" and get a laugh. It requires a serious, real fight and somehow, even if its victims don't know how to fight, they may have to learn how – a struggle all its own.

Gilda supported The Wellness Community because the emotional and social support of people working and being together really can make a difference in ways far bigger than individuals can on their own.

No one has to fight alone. Organizations like The Cancer Support Community exist because they are effective. They really work.

The CSC network today delivers about $40 million/yr in free services including a telephone hotline and and a full suite of online services to anyone (patients and families) touched by cancer. I invite you to visit the CSC web site or contact them directly if you have any questions or have need of their services.

In closing this essay, it is my sincere message for everyone who is struggling with any cancer, and for the people who know someone who may be, to please remember this ... you/they never have to be alone.

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As part of the fight against ovarian and all other cancers, and to support those in need during their struggle, twenty-five percent of the sales revenue I receive in calendar years 2013 - 2014 from my novel, Sleeping in Snow with Bears, will be donated to Cancer Support Community. Please join me in making this donation as large as possible.

Pro-Tip to maximize contribution – Due to production costs of printing on paper, shipping, etc., lower-priced ebook purchases actually maximize the donation size (and minimize your cost).

Cancer Support Community, Gilda's Club and The Wellness Community logos

Representatives of CSC are aware of this promotion.