Cancer Lottery

A single lymphocyte, with its natural killer (NK) cells, T cells and B cells.
Photo courtesy: National Cancer Institute

I’ve been saved.

I’ve been saved from a genetic DNA mismatch, the tumor suppressor MSH2 malfunction that wreaks havoc on health, on life, on longevity. It’s not just one cancer to deal with; it’s dozens. Most know it as the dreaded Lynch Syndrome.

In the months since learning my genetic-testing fate in my family’s 50-50 cancer lottery, I rage at the injustice of my sister’s positive result and her latest unwanted journey with another rarest-of-rare cancer. Growing up just one year apart (“Irish twins,” they called us), I cannot bear to see the injustice my sister bears, yet bears so wisely, so compassionately, so graciously. She, with her husband, sons, job, friends, home, and faith – she has so much to live for, to lean into hope, even as her hair falls out again, her legs fill with blood clots again, her skin prickly and tingly and numb, fighting infection after infection from her chemo-weakened immune system once again, and a body so scarred from surgeries that will never, ever fade away. She lives for her family, and most of all for her sons and their futures…

Cancer cells, so wickedly pretty Photo courtesy: National Cancer Institute

Cancer cells, so wickedly pretty
Photo courtesy: National Cancer Institute

Because I have been spared all this – this genetic DNA mismatch – life is no longer the same. It cannot be the same. Workplace maneuverings are meaningless; daily disappointments cannot bind me, nor the past and all its mistakes chain me in. I have yet to see what I should see, what I think I should see – so blinded by this light of hope, falling to my knees intertwined in gratefulness and sadness.

And so I wait, we wait. I live, we live. Love and lean into the peace that this simply is: our imperfect bodies, our imperfect DNA, our imperfect lives, our unknown blessed futures, unfolding now…


White-trash garlic bread

Helen Holter - birthday 1970s

Always looking beyond, I was never quite satisfied with what was in front of me, especially food. (1970s)

 I CAN’T GET no satisfaction.

I grew up wanting more, and why not? It was my culture, the late ’60s and 1970s. Even the Rolling Stones’ Mick Jagger wailed dissatisfaction over a girl dissatisfied with him. Mick ‘can’t get no satisfaction’ with TV ads telling him to be dissatisfied with less-than-white shirts, to be dissatisfied with his cigarettes — there are better smokes out there. In fact, everything else is better out there. So be cool: be dissatisfied.

So I was. Dissatisfaction seeped into my soul, but most of all into my stomach. I couldn’t get no satisfaction from — food.

A day's haul of my dad's backyard tomatoes

My dad with a day’s haul of his backyard tomatoes.

 GROWING UP IN MONTANA, our backyard burst with home-grown strawberries, organic beans corn, carrots, cucumbers, and my dad’s consuming passion: his dozen varieties of tomatoes, from heirloom to hybrid.

Each autumn Dad hunted and shot a deer–beheaded and bloodied in the basement — fresh meat for his family. My mom’s cooking won nine top ribbons at the Montana State Fair: breads, pies, cakes and candies. (The town newspaper even featured my mom and her first-prize-winning cinnamon rolls.)

Harvesttime: my mom's canned cherries, jams, pies

Harvest time: my mom’s canned cherries, jams, and prize-winning pies. Yet I preferred Hostess Cherry Pies.

 WE CANNED TOMATOES, beans,  horseradish, cherries, and pears. Picked free chokecherries along country roads for jams and jellies. Made pizza from scratch on Saturday nights, watching “Gunsmoke.” Pigged out on Mom’s homemade garlic bread dripping with melted butter, pungent garlic cloves, and freshly grated cheese.

On our relatives’ Montana homesteads, I plucked feathers from beheaded chickens in the kitchen sink, drank milk from cows whose udders I’d pumped earlier that morning.

My cousins feed slop to grateful hogs. (Hinsdale, Montana)

My cousins feed slop to grateful hogs. (Hinsdale, Montana)

Played in the pigpen, knowing some hog might be that night’s main meal.  (‘Bringin’ home the bacon’ really meant something to me.)  It was all from scratch: from bread, butter, and bacon to pickles, preserves, and pies.

OUR LIVES were from scratch, scratching out livings as best my parents could try. And they tried, and they tried, and they tried.

And yet, in my now-envied childhood world of whole foods and good health, in that age of jagged dissatisfaction my small soul longed for more, so much more…


Twinkies, 30+ ingredients for this cream-filled cake

Twinkies, 30+ ingredients for this cream-filled cake

 I LONGED for Twinkies.

Ho-Hos. Hostess Cherry Pies and Ding-Dongs.

Cheez-Whiz. Hamburger Helper, Spam, Dream Whip, and Jello. What could trump a Manwich with Pringles and Velveeta cheese? Fine dining was Swanson frozen fried chicken TV dinners along with what’s now ironically known as  ‘white-trash garlic bread’ – made with Imperial Margarine/(fake) butter, Wonder (chemical) Bread, McCormick’s garlic powder, and Kraft preservative-filled powdered Parmesan cheese from a shiny green can–oh, and pass me the MSG, please. I craved them all, beyond the hunger pangs in my stomach.


Hamburger Helper, instant cake mix, Spam: 79 ingredients

Hamburger Helper, instant cake mix, Spam: 79 ingredients and counting.

 I HUNGERED for store-bought, processed, chemically-laden products: status symbols of wealth. They cost money, and you had to have money to buy them. So, in my young mind if you could buy that stuff, you were rich.

In contrast, cheap natural foods made from scratch or grown in backyard gardens were obvious signs of financial struggle–my family’s struggles. White-trash hicks. White-trash kid.

Worse, in school lunchrooms kids with lunch pails and homemade fare were branded, self-segregated to cafeteria corners while kids who paid for hot meals–pizza, tater tots, corn dogs–sat at the coolest, most prominent tables. I was no Rosa Parks of lunch-pail integration back then, but still longed–like a child’s nose pressed against candy-store glass–I longed for those 10- and 25-cent meals that would land me in the upper class of my class.


From scratch, my food for the satisfied soul. (Seattle, 2003)

From scratch, my food for the satisfied soul. (Seattle, 2003)

 DECADES LATER, I cook everything from scratch. Decades later, I still struggle with class, social standing judged on the stock I come from, where I was born and now live, what I eat. It’s a sense of place DNAed into me, longing and yet knowing that no matter what I do or achieve I will never really ‘fit in’ to that higher social class–acceptance–I craved as a child, with store-bought processed food my gateway.

Like Twinkies.

I know better, now. I know my place. And yet, my childhood culinary dissatisfaction of our Montana homegrown, white-trash whole foods is now craved by those upper classes willing to spend ‘whole paychecks’ for local, raw, organic fresh fare.

We are all so dissatisfied with what’s on our plates, craving that which eludes us even when the most nourishing sustenance is set before us, inviting us to eat, drink, and be filled.

And perhaps, someday, to be satisfied…



Voices of Global Health: Dr. David Fleming

IT’S COUNTDOWN TIME to July’s “Global Health Month in Seattle!”

Today’s “Voice of Global Health” is Seattle’s Dr. David Fleming of Public Health-Seattle & King County. He wakes up the world with three words describing Washington State’s global health: “Better than Geneva.” Read Dr. Fleming’s entire blog post–with those stunning three words– here.

Dr. David Fleming & butterfly (!)

He’s very approachable! A butterfly lands on Dr. David Fleming, Director of Public Health for Seattle-King County. (Photo credit: WGHA)

 “Global health work at its core is simply being part of the human family and recognizing that those that have much have an obligation to those who have little….whether we live in Mozambique or Moses Lake.” –Dr. David Fleming

Indeed. And, I might add, whether we live in Mozambique, Moses Lake — or Montana.

Global health is local health– right here in Seattle, as in the innovative “Global-to-Local” program to help our own in South King County.

Our own human family.

Recommended: Washington Global Health Alliance web site.


Divas & dads: dying to know…

My dad, as I remember him. (Billings, Montana 1960s)

My dad, as I remember him. (Billings, Montana)

 MY DAD DIED a month ago today, February 18, 2012.

EXACTLY ONE MONTH ago this evening I sat at this computer, cobbling together this global health web site. I’d been typing and coding since early morning, background TV blaring a weepy funeral service for singer-diva Whitney Houston. Her death certificate blamed drowning, but the bigger blame was also Whitney’s deadly fondness for cocaine. I wondered if Whitney had lived somewhere else–a place safe from drugs, equal to a bodyguard protecting her from such addictive temptations — would she be alive today? Even for the rich, has Whitney proved a global health lesson that where you live–and the lifestyle influences of that ‘spirit of place’–affects your health, and your death?

As Whitney’s farewell unfolded, I sat here writing about health determinants in global health: where you live; your lifestyle; your wealth; your ease of access to medical care; and the quality of that care. They all shape your health, and a nation’s health.

As I immersed myself in writing how to untangle global health jargon, my mom called to say my dad was still in the hospital under observation for fainting, along with blood pressure and heart blips. No big deal: Dad was scheduled to be released that day, Saturday. OK Mom, thanks. I went back to coding at my computer, watching Whitney’s funeral, writing about how global health is local health. Unknown to me…

FOR SOME REASON unknown to me the doctor grew cautious. A million miles away from Seattle, things weren’t adding up. The doctor told Mom maybe let’s be safe and fine-tune Dad with a temporary pacemaker, just in case. But oops: it’s Saturday. Oops: it’s Presidents’ Day weekend. Oops: We need approval from Medicare before we do this, or they might not cover it. Too bad their offices are closed until Tuesday. So hang tight ’til Tuesday, Dad — and you’ll go home with a pacemaker prize!


Instead, Dad was talking on the hospital phone with my sister. Then “I don’t feel so good.” Dad dropped the phone, cord dangling. A blur: code-blue emergency surgery, pacemaker permission be damned. Too late: Dad’s heart simply stopped. It stopped like when a horse lies down, and then…simply… dies. Dad was dead.

DAD’S DEATH CERTIFICATE blames myocardial infarction, but the bigger blame might be healthcare red tape, like permission for a pacemaker. I wonder if Dad had lived somewhere else like Norway, land of his ancestors–a place safe, equal to a medical-system bodyguard who protected him from such healthcare red tape — would he be alive today? Even for an average American, has Dad proved a global health lesson that where you live–and the health-care influences of that ‘spirit of place’–affects your health, and your death?

I’m dying to know….