June 2020, my life changed in a lot of ways, but really – I think that was the case for everyone. It was the midst of the first pandemic lockdown. I was going through a family crisis, one that remains unresolved and part of my daily life. But June was when I was diagnosed with breast cancer.

It’s a strange thing when you’re told for the first time that you have cancer. You take in the words, “I have bad news, I’m afraid. The mass of tissue we sampled is indeed a cancer, and it is a kind of cancer that could end your life. But we will do everything we can to…” and then you just don’t really hear words anymore. Vague echoes drift around your head, bounce off the walls and nothing touches you.

Deep down, I already knew I had it. The particular type of breast cancer I had was extremely rare and aggressive, so from the first gynecologist visit to the mammograms and almost immediate biopsy, I could feel the tumor growing. It was getting hotter and bigger. I could feel it grow from about an inch to well over three inches within weeks.

Time to Rethink

I think most people agree and nod and understand that facing death makes you reevaluate your life. There’s the accepted wisdom that ”you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone,” even if what’s going is your life.

When 2019 was coming to a close and I listed all my new year resolutions for 2020, a complete collapse of everything I had built in my life was just not on my radar. I didn’t see this level of pain coming. In fact, my overall health at that time was on the rise. I had big plans, lots of things on my list. A serious life smack down wasn’t a thing I could have foreseen, but it came.

I’m now 100% cancer free. I’m doing my physical therapy exercises most every day. I have my 10-minute antibody shot every third week and my hair is returning. The scar from my mastectomy healed all right and I’m training my body to recover from the internal damage caused by the surgery. It’s a long process. I still have chemo side effects, various things that I deal with every day, where I just do what I can to maintain and keep my chin up.

I paint when I can, draw and design when I can, and now that I’m off chemo, I can write again. Really write, the fiction writing that requires the kind of focus you just can’t pull together when you’re on chemo. Not all chemo cocktails are the same, but the stuff I was on made me feel stupid a lot of the time.

Turning it Around at Chemo Rehab

After the chemo and surgery, I was able to stay one month (April 2021) at the chemo rehab clinic in Freiburg. It changed my life. I learned a lot about what my body needs in order to heal. I learned to train repairing muscles without hurting myself. Very importantly, I made new friends in the incredible fellow cancer survivors I met there. These ladies are all quite different from me and from each other, but we just love each other and support each other (a few of the gals are pictured here). It’s great and their friendship means a lot to me.

Fabulous Karen

All of us cancer survivors living at the clinic had full days, thickly scheduled curricula based on whatever we needed. I had post-op arm therapy, balance therapy, nerve damage therapies, scar treatment, heat therapy, skin care consultations (chemo severely dries up everything), various sport therapies, Fango (hot clay) kneading, one on one psychotherapy, art therapy, diet consultations and all sorts of medical seminars.

I also had Autogenes Training, or what I call my “How-to-take-a-nap Class.” Learning tricks to help me sleep has been really invaluable. I can even use those methods to help me relax.

My time in rehab felt a lot like college, actually. We patients would meet up in the halls between classes, chat it up in the cafeteria, and stay up late talking and laughing up in our rooms. Everything was up, upwards and onwards, together.

It was exactly what I needed. It gave me time to get better, and it gave me the tools I previously didn’t have in order to recover, tip to toe.

Asking Myself Hard Questions

Easter weekend at that clinic is one I will never forget, because that’s when I realized, after everything I had been through, I had changed very profoundly. I asked myself some hard questions about my life and realized I needed to make some big and difficult changes. My life was exhausting and I knew that I had a lot more climbing uphill to do.

Fabulous Manu

There is a literary agency who is interested in my work. They’ve given me a code to include in my emails so that anything I send them gets prioritized. But I have never taken advantage of that code, never sent them anything even though I could have.

I asked myself, “Why haven’t I sent anything to the agency?”

This was for me a very hard question, one I now know I had been avoiding for well over a year. I had worked very hard (read: very, very hard) to make that connection with that particular agency. It had been a long and hard won effort. But it didn’t matter.

I knew they weren’t the right agency for me and it wasn’t until I was at the chemo rehab center that I could face that. Creatively, I just didn’t jive with those particular agents, which meant a solid working relationship with them wasn’t really possible.

Instead of looking for another agent all over again, I had – simply – stalled. I stopped completely. The COVID pandemic hit, I was smacked with a family crisis, and then I got cancer. So sure, there were some serious, valid reasons for my writing to have stalled. No doubt. But I could have done something and I didn’t.

It was clear on Easter that the only thing I could do was search for another agent. Square One, all over again.

Another Big Truth

It was also clear to me that I had to seriously rework the manuscript for my novel. I had various manuscripts ready to show an agent, but only one novel, my first so far. I realized that there were inconsistencies in the story and that ultimately, it was because I wasn’t being true to myself.

Fabulous Lili

There were whole swaths of the manuscript I had written for someone else, not for myself, and it caused this terrible lack of cohesion. I knew I needed to correct that and I knew it was going to be a monster sized correction. Basically, a rewrite. Again. As one fellow writer once remarked of this type of writing, “Not a new dress for the old doll, but a completely new doll. Maybe a teddy bear, in fact.”

What Happened Next

I couldn’t work on the manuscript while at the clinic. That was out. I didn’t have anything with me. So I did what I was able to do. I put on my face mask and went down to the clinic lobby, to the dark corner and four clunky computers with internet access. It was so empty my footfall echoed.

I disinfected the keyboard, then my hands, and started searching through literary agencies.

Incredibly, I found the profile picture and name of a literary agent I once met at the International Book Fair in Frankfurt, about one year before the pandemic broke. She was terrific. When we met, I told her about how I was going to fly to America, to meet this other agency who I thought was a perfect fit for my writing. She had a little time before her next meeting, so we talked about family, movies we like, authors we like and why. She recommended I read some books that weren’t yet on the market, certain titles to watch for and I’ve since read them all.

It was that moment, staring at a blinking monitor, my hands resting on a sticky keyboard on Easter Sunday that I realized she should be my agent. At least, she’s the agent who’s actually going to see my manuscript, the one I’m rewriting these days.

I hope she loves it, my novel. It’s my best writing to date. I hope she will feel as I do, that we would make a terrific team. If not, well. I’ll brush myself off and start from Square One again. What else?