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The Tattoo That Binds

When my dear friend, Annette, passed away in late December of last year, I was crushed. She was an incredible human being and the toughest cancer warrior I knew. Our friendship was truly special – we were more than just two people going through a similar situation together with similar attitudes. We were real friends. And within our friendship grew a sanctuary for each other. I felt safe when I was talking to or spending time with Annette, and I think I did the same for her. We were two soldiers in the trenches with each other, surrounded by loving family and friends but especially bonded by our battles with cancer. In my mind, there is no one who understood the whole cancer experience more than she did. There is no one who connected with me more on the “we’re fighting cancer and doing our best to survive” level than she did.

Losing her was a great, great loss for me. It was as if I was alone, in the wild, foraging for myself in a world that was unknown to me. Never mind that I was over two years into treatment, extremely close with my medical team, and bonded as ever with my family and friends and colleagues. The truth is, when I found out that Annette had passed away, I felt as lonely as I ever have. It was one of the darkest moments in my life.

Grieving for Annette has been a long process. There was no punctuated breakdown or day where I couldn’t get out of bed. Instead, it was as if there was a little sad cloud over me at all times, no matter how great my day was. I couldn’t shake the persistent sadness over my friend, and I didn’t want to shake it, either. Holding on to that feeling of loss was still holding on to my friend, so I didn’t mind that even the most fun days were curbed by a tinge of sadness. That was ok for me, and I lived like that for months. Maybe I’m still living like that.

Ever since her death, I wrote Annette’s initials on the inside of my left wrist. It was instinctual, really. I hadn’t planned on doing it or keeping it up, but every day when I woke up, I scrawled “a.c.” on my wrist and went about my day. When something went well, I’d smile at it. When I grinding through a chemo week, I’d look at it and feel stronger. When I was playing basketball and made a shot, I’d kiss it. This was a physical representation of my friend, and it gave me some peace. And it made me feel close to Annette.

Yesterday, I made it permanent. I went to my favorite vegan tattoo artist, James Spooner (wonderful guy), and inked her initials on my wrist forever. I chose to do it in lower case, since that was how Annette wrote all of her personal emails. I also chose the font that she’d always use, Courier New.

I had some of my crew with me for the tattoo, including my parents and my buddies Stoney and Jordan. My mom asked James if the wrist was a particularly sensitive spot and if the tattoo was going to hurt. James responded: “Yeah, it’s probably going to suck.” I just smiled. First off, there’s no way it could be tougher than getting “Wunder” tattooed on my ribs, and I had already been there and done that. Secondly, I welcomed the moment when I was binding my body with the memory of Annette. I didn’t care how badly it hurt. I didn’t care if it bled. This tattoo was for my girl, and I embraced whatever came with getting it.

The moment the needle hit my arm, I felt the rush of pain, but it wasn’t too bad. My crew was impressed that, throughout the whole tattoo process (which only took a few minutes), I never flinched or grimaced. Instead of letting the pain affect me, I thought of Annette. I thought of the good times we shared, our phone conversations, our bonding time at Norris, and when my Foundation gave her an award last June. I thought of the stories she told me about traveling with her family and thought about how much she loved her family and friends. I thought of how hard she fought the disease, and all she went through to survive. I thought of that last time we spent together at Norris, and how we held hands tightly and spoke about hope and peace. I thought about the exquisite beauty that was Annette, and that IS Annette. And I felt happy. Very happy.

Then, the tattoo was done.

I think it’s beautiful. Actually, I think that tattoo is perfect. The initials “a.c.” are a part of my physical body forever, and just the way Annette wrote them.

I was honored to be her friend, and now I’m honored to have her initials on my wrist as a physical reminder to keep fighting, to take care of myself, and to embrace life with open arms and a heart filled with love – just how Annette did.

Chemo Round 47, That Lymph Node, and New York City

Actually, the title of this blog post is in reverse order. I’ll start with New York.

I flew back home to L.A. the day after my appearance on the Today Show, and I had a whole two days at home before I packed my stuff up again and headed back to The Big Apple. Since last week was an off-chemo week, making the trip was a breeze and I had a blast. I did a media event (and spoke alongside Deepak Chopra which was an incredible experience), ate some delicious vegan food, and even scored a new pair of kicks while I was in the city (for you sneakerheads out there, I strongly recommend Flight Club in NYC). The weather started out a bit unfriendly – I grimaced through a sleet storm the first night I was there – but ended beautifully. As usual, New York City was magical and lovely.

I hightailed it back home by Wednesday night because I had a CT scan on Thursday morning. This would be an all-important scan because it would reveal whether the radiation I did in January on that rogue lymph node in my chest actually worked. A pretty big deal, but I remained calm. I understand how other cancer warriors get “scanxiety,” that super anxious feeling when you’re about to get a scan or waiting on results. But here’s the thing about “scanxiety”: it doesn’t change anything. It doesn’t make the scan results better or worse. All it really achieves is freaking people out. So I refuse to countenance scanxiety. The moment my mind wanders to “wow – I wonder what the scan says,” I remind myself that I’m in control. If I went by what scans said, I’d be six feet under by now. So forget the scans. I listen to what Dr. Lenz tells me, I do everything I can to make myself as formidable a foe against cancer as possible, and I keep on rolling with my life and The Wunder Project.

I had a particularly powerful moment during the scan itself, as I was in the tube. I was chillin’ in there, wearing my Duke hat (of course) and waiting to take that mandated deep breath that I’d need to hold. A thought popped into my head, and it was a really reassuring one. The thought was simple and powerful.

“This scan does not determine your future. YOU DO.”

I don’t know where the thought came from, but I have to tip my hat to my Creator for even putting such a sentiment in my head. It felt great to listen to that thought and to believe it. And I do believe it.

The results were ready on Friday, but Dr. Lenz was in NYC (we just missed each other!) so we didn’t discuss it until Saturday, when I headed to USC Norris for the annual colon cancer patient reception (which went really well -- I spoke as did most of our Wunder Project team) followed by a chill session with Heinz in his office.

The results? Are you ready?

The lymph node shrunk. We blasted that fool. Radiation worked. And the disease in my belly remains stable. So all in all, a pretty great scan. It won’t change my course of treatment, so I’m still hanging with my bag o’ chemo every other week, but still. This was a success. That lymph node could have eroded a major vein in my chest and, if that would have happened, I could have bled to death. We needed this radiation to work to take me out of danger. And it did. The side effects of a scratchy throat and losing about 5 pounds (hey, not a bad side effect) were all worth it. And now I can help people who have questions about radiation since I went through ten rounds of it. A win/win for everyone!

Finally, Round 47 of chemo. It went great. No cameras followed us around this time, no meetings during infusion, so I got to really relax this time around. I spent the next two days in bed, watching TV and movies and eating and drinking. And now, Thursday morning, I’m back. Feeling very good and, as always, feeling very grateful.

And if this wasn’t enough news for you, I’ve got one more thing to share. That news crew that followed me around a couple of weeks ago was from CNN. CNN as in CNN! I’ve been excited for weeks over this awesomeness. The segment on me and The Wunder Project will air THIS WEEKEND on Sanjay Gupta’s show, “The Human Factor.” It'll come on at 4:30pm EST on Saturday and at 7:30pm EST on Sunday. CNN was also awesome enough to give us some web coverage, which will start in early April (I’ll let you know when). Check out the show this weekend and let me know what you think! The Wunder Project is definitely making moves.

Finally, I’m getting another tattoo today. But I’ll save that for another post.


Chemo Round 46 and The Today Show

You know, my treatment routine is getting more unconventional by the day. Last round, I did the Harlem Shake before infusing for Round 45. This time, a camera crew was with me (don't worry, when I can tell you where the camera crew is from and when our television segment is going to air, I’ll tell you).

The Wunder Project has been getting a lot of attention from the press, which is exactly what we wanted, especially during this early period of the Project. Getting as many people to know who we are will only expand our circle of supporters, so I couldn’t be happier with the way things are going. Having said that, though, I knew that this round of chemo would be a doozy and probably something that not many cancer warriors would welcome with open arms. But when you’re WunderGlo, normal bounds of reasonableness – even when it applies to chemo -- just don’t really apply anymore. So here’s my recap of Chemo Round 46:

I got to chemo a little early on Monday to fill a prescription and have a little pre-filming time to myself, and got there just in time to do both. Soon enough, the TV crew and my PR team were with me, and the cameras were rolling. Because I’ve done so much filming with Jordan, the creator of The Wunder Project film and The WunderGlo Foundation video, I was cool as a cucumber. Honestly, having a camera capture my every move just doesn’t bother me at all. This TV crew filmed me and my friends playing basketball last Friday, and literally shooting a free throw with a camera about a foot away from my face didn’t even phase me. So I guess you can call me a little bit of a pro at this point. ☺

Chemo itself went great – had a good meeting with Dr. Lenz, infusion time flew by, and I was attached to my bag o’ chemo and on my way before I knew it. I got home and got in bed, trying to preserve as much energy as possible. Because tomorrow, I’d be on my way to New York City.

I flew to New York on Tuesday while infusing, forcing myself to eat and drink as much as possible (the after effects of radiation only began about a week after treatment ended and continues to persist – my little throat hurts!), and trying to sleep as much as possible. My mom traveled with me and took impeccable care of me, but I knew that no matter how great the care was, I was challenging my body in a serious way. We landed, I slept, and the next morning, I felt the same way I always feel on a chemo Wednesday: not awesome.

So how does a chemo Wednesday feel? It’s hard to describe to people who don’t have cancer, but just think of it like a hangover. You feel a little queasy, not really interested in eating, and headachy. The gross headache feeling is the worst of all three, so I usually try to sleep it off on Wednesday. I couldn’t, though, because I had a conference call with a major drug maker (I’m going back to New York next week for their event), and then I had to take a car to my hotel (we stayed in New Jersey at my mother-in-law’s house for the first night). And in the morning, I’d have to get up early and be at my very best, because your buddy WunderGlo was going to be on the Today Show with Kathie Lee and Hoda.

Luckily, as the hours passed on Wednesday night, the gross headachy fog began to lift a bit. I started making up songs in the hotel room (a surefire sign that I’m getting my crazy/normal ways back), and after my mom hoofed it to bring me back some delicious (vegan) Italian food, I was feeling the old me creeping back in. But still, was this enough to knock it out of the park the next morning? I told myself that it would be and reminded myself about who I was dealing with. Come on. I can do this. Please. Ah yes, that old WunderGlo confidence. Much needed.

The next morning, I got up bright and early, hopped in the shower, and was chugging almost at full strength. By the time I got to the Today Show, I was feeling the flow. I jumped into hair and makeup and, minutes later, was camera ready. And almost an instant after that, I was ushered into the area where the filming would take place. Lots of cameras and lights, and Kathie Lee and Hoda doing their thing with another segment. I’d be going on with a doctor at NYU (Dr. Pochapin – very cool dude) and another cancer warrior (Teri Griege – ridiculously awesome lady), and the three of us chit chatted quietly before we were given our spots on the couch and the countdown began.

This was it. My first live television segment, and on national television, and on the most popular morning show in America.

I wasn’t nervous. You know, when people cut you open and remove organs and other folks pump you full of chemotherapy drugs, very few things actually make you nervous. So yeah, I wasn’t nervous. And it went really well. Kathie Lee and Hoda are total studs – warm and professional and fun all at the same time – and Dr. Pochapin and Teri did an awesome job. And, by all accounts, I did an awesome job, too. It was invigorating. And you can check it out here.

After that, I took off to a major magazine for a little chit chat about The Wunder Project. No rest for the weary, team!

And after that, I had a full day in New York City, hanging out with my mom and my best friend from law school (Rhett) and my sister-in-law (Marie) and her boyfriend (A.J.). We wrapped up the day at around midnight, and I crashed in Marie’s bed, giving thanks for her super comfy sheets and the deliciousness of some well-deserved rest.

Yesterday, I took it very easy, flew home, and crashed again. And today, I’m up to my old tricks. I’m feeling great (just finished up at the gym), and extremely excited about where The Wunder Project is headed. And this is only the beginning.

Oh yeah, and I go back to New York City on Monday for some more media stuff. Life is moving fast, but I’m loving every minute of it.

I’m pretty sure cancer wished it had never messed with me. And now it’s really quakin’ in its boots. That’s right, cancer. Bad choice, fool. I’m coming after you and I’m not going to stop coming after you until you are history…for all of us.

A WunderGlo Whirlwind

Ever since our launch of The Wunder Project a couple of weeks ago, life has gotten even more exciting for your buddy WunderGlo. Emails and meetings and conference calls have all increased in frequency, our film has reached nearly 10,000 views on YouTube, and our Harlem Shake video is about to break a million. Our website is gorgeous, our pitch materials are being made as I type, and I’m just about ready to start reaching out to corporations and other heavy hitters about joining our ranks.

On top of that, we’re getting a lot of media attention. Phone interviews (one of them resulted in this article from SHAPE magazine: have been plentiful, and we’ve secured TV segments on not one but two major networks. One segment was filmed on Thursday and Friday of this week (and at chemo on Monday). The other one is LIVE television (on this coming Thursday morning), and I’m flying to New York for it on Tuesday. Yes, you read that right. Chemo on Monday, flying to New York on Tuesday, live television on Thursday. And after live television, a couple of interviews for print media. It’s safe to say that we are cookin’, with no signs of stopping. (And in case you are curious about the TV shows/networks, etc., just know that I'll spill the beans on all of that when we're given the green light to do so.)

In the midst of all of the craziness, I’ve made sure to take many moments throughout each day to take some deep breaths and give thanks for what I have and what we’re doing with The Wunder Project. It’s a highly improbable turn that my life has taken, but I am truly happy, contented, and satisfied with my life and the path that I’m on. I know that this whole cancer-killing adventure is much bigger than just defeating the silly mixed-up disease in my body. It isn’t just about changing my life, but changing the lives of others. It’s not just about my treatment, but about changing the way we approach cancer research and treatment for everyone, and from now on.

It’s about saving lives. It’s about sparking the hope and confidence within all of our hearts that we can do the unthinkable: we can CURE cancer. It’s like climbing the highest mountain or running the longest race, but it can be done. It can be done. And it will be done.

Much of The Wunder Project’s success rests on my shoulders. I am the engineer of this thing and I need to lead this movement, recruit thousands and thousands of people to believe in our cause, and raise millions upon millions of dollars. It sounds daunting, but it’s really not. It’s about communicating our ideas, sharing our passion and our story, and convincing people that we are for real.

I am certainly for real. Dr. Lenz is, too. And so is our medical team. Together, we’re determined to change the world for the better.

And, day by day, the world is finding out about us.

Chemo Round 45 and The Harlem Shake

By now, you know that my chemo infusion days aren’t that normal. The day begins with my choosing a t-shirt that puts me in an especially kick a** mood, continues with some hip hop music blasting on the way to Norris, and consists of lots of hugs and laughs with Dr. Lenz and a great time with my crew. Chemo has never been a solemn occasion. It has never been sad. It has always been happy. And, believe it or not (if you’ve followed this blog for long enough, you’ll believe it), it's always been fun.

This round of chemo was especially so. And now over a half a million people know about it.

It all started a couple of weeks ago when the “Harlem Shake” YouTube dance craze began. This, like all other YouTube fads, spread rapidly. Harlem Shake videos are about 30 seconds long, and go like this: while everyone else in the room acts totally normally, either watching TV or reading or on the computer, one person starts dancing. That person wears a helmet or mask of some kind, and spends the first half of the Harlem Shake song gyrating and dancing all alone. Then, the song changes. A voice says “AND DO THE HARLEM SHAKE” and the beat drops. At that moment in the video, all the people who were acting normally are suddenly in different garb (usually outlandish in some respect) and breaking it down, dancing their butts off. After about 15 seconds of dancing as a crew, the song comes to an abrupt end with a sort of growl sound, and that’s it. This is the Harlem Shake video craze.

So from the first moment I saw a Harlem Shake video, I wanted in. I loved the sheer ridiculousness of it all and longed to dance to the beat. I really wanted to be the person in the helmet, too. So I talked with my crew and we decided that we’d do a Harlem Shake – Chemo Edition video.

It wasn’t hard getting buy-in. My parents were in. My nurse was in. The awesome volunteer who always hooks me up with a warm blanket and a plethora of vegan eats was in. And, of course, Dr. Lenz was in. He recruited his nurse practitioner, Taline, to join in the fun. A nurse who passed my room and saw the madness unfolding asked if we wanted another volunteer dancer. And Jordan, the man who made The Wunder Project’s film, was on hand to capture the magic.

It took a few cuts, but we managed to get enough footage to feel comfortable with our upcoming offering to the Harlem Shake pantheon. I loved getting a little dancing in before chemo, too – got the blood pumping and somehow made the whole infusion process seem easier than ever before. While I guzzled down my chemo, I watched some rough cuts of our work and knew that we’d done something really, really good. We’d joined the craze and I had a feeling we'd make a splash. All the while, we’d be helping raise the profile of The Wunder Project, since we released our Harlem Shake on The WunderGlo Foundation’s YouTube channel and Jordan made sure to add The Wunder Project’s logo to the end of the video. The Harlem Shake could only bring good things.

Now, several days later, I’m fully bounced back from chemo (it was one of the easiest rounds yet – good times) and, so far, The Wunder Project’s Harlem Shake (Chemo Edition) has received over 641,000 views on YouTube. It has, in fact, contributed to more views to our actual film and to all the videos previously released on the Foundation's channel. I have a feeling that we'll hit a million views, and that could lead to more media attention (although things are already going well, which I'll tell you about soon). We thought of a creative and timely way to get our faces, and our dance moves, out to the world and I'm pretty sure we succeeded. I think it’s safe to say that Chemo Round 45 was a major success.

Oh yeah, and here’s the video -- I hope you like it:
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