human, being

Brain dump
May 20, 2009, 1:51 pm
Filed under: work | Tags: , , ,

I’m working on a big old article for my magazine at work. It’s about cancer stem cells. You know, those 1 in 10,000,000 cells in a cancer tumor that *may* give rise to a tumor and explain metastasis and recurrence.

The idea is this: tumor stem cells are like normal stem cells that have gone haywire. In skin, a normal stem cell creates a daughter cell and another stem cell to build up your dermis so that your skin can rejuvenate itself every three weeks or so. But in cancer–particularly in blood cancer and in cancer involving epithelial cells (skin, lung, stomach, colon, breast)–something goes haywire in that normal stem cell. Instead of making one daughter cell and one new stem cell, it makes a bunch of new broken stem cells that then make a bunch of broken daughter cells that become a tumor.

The daughter cells are the ones that get killed off with chemo and radiation and immunotherapies. But the stem cells are somehow resistant to all these poisons. They can go into hiding when the tumor is under attack and come back later, when the rest of the tumor is dead, to make new tumors in new places in the body.

Some scientists think the answer to cancer is to kill the stem cells so the tumors don’t come back.; and that maybe as few as one single genetically damaged stem cell can give rise to a tumor. Others don’t think cancer stem cells exist at all, that any cell can create a tumor.

At my university, we have a whole stem cell research and regenerative medicine program that has many, many scientists who believe that cancer stem cells do exist. And they’re doing some very interesting science–some of it so groundbreaking that it very well may shake up the way that bone marrow transplants and solid organ transplants are done.

They have drugs that are killing stem cells in leukemia, causing mice to live up to one year after a 7-day course of substances that the National Cancer Institute put on a shelf years ago because they “didn’t work”. (that happens a lot in cancer research)

One scientist has figured out how to give a mouse a human immune system so they can implant a tumor from the immune system donor, which means instead of trying to figure out how to treat human beings with cancer by trying it on mouse tumors first, they’ll be able to experiment on human tumors in human-like mice.

It’s all very cool. Very interesting. And very, very painful to my brain.

So far, I’ve interviewed six scientists, all of whom use terms with me like hematapoietic and xenograft model and tumorigenic capacity and syngeneic mouse model. I sit in front of these highly educated, very very smart people and I really don’t want to say WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT.  Because I’ve been doing this job for 2 whole years, and by now, I should have absorbed through osmosis the 14 years of biology and chemistry and immunology and pathology and *ology that I didn’t take.

I do ask clarifying questions. And they hand me these “easy to understand” articles to help me, which I need a translator to follow.

Then I hit Google and Wikipedia and the National Cancer Institute and PubMed and American Cancer Society and a half-dozen other websites doing ancillary research so I can write a 1,700-2,000 word article that makes some sort of sense to a lay audience.

And that my friends, is the crux of what I do for a living. And why I constantly have a headache.

There are tens and tens of thousands of scientists around the world, all working on these tiny aspects of cancer, trying to understand gene signaling pathways and how hormone receptors work or don’t work in driving cancer, and why some cells commit suicide and some don’t. There’s Wnt, and mRNA. There’s EGFR and IGFR. There’s KRAS and PTen and … POP! Oh, that was my brain.

Now, I’m a smart girl. I got a perfect score on my ACT and a 1480 on my SAT. But on days like this, when I’m trying to bullshit my way through a highly scientific article that I really have NO PURPOSE WRITING, I feel so incredibly dumb.

Dumb. Dumb. Dumb.

Because not only do I get to try to understand the science, I get to try to tell the STORY of the science. That’s supposed to be the fun part. I like telling stories. Hell, telling stories is how I spend more than half my life. But I’ve been reading and re-reading my notes on this one and I wonder what I’ve gotten myself into. Because I can’t figure out how to tell the story.

It’s the story of a burgeoning cancer stem cell research program that has solid funding in an age where solid research funding just doesn’t exist. It’s the story of a perfect storm: having the right people and the right technology in place at the right time to maybe, just maybe, conquer a small corner of the cancer world.

Since I’m struggling with writing the actual story, with quotes and insights and putting all the pieces of the puzzle together,  I came over here to blog about it. And it helped. Because now I think I know how I can at least get the story started.


It must be spring ‘cuz I am cleaning
May 14, 2009, 3:02 pm
Filed under: life, work | Tags: ,

I’m a self-professed slob. Not a gross, leave-food-laden-plates-under-the-bed kind of slob, but more of a piler kind of slob. I’m of the mind that if I file it away in a drawer, I’ll never a) find it or b) remember that I have it. And most of the time I can think of at least 10 different ways I could spend my 10 minutes than putting things away. Or, I get  really busy, and wind up throwing stuff into said pile because I’m rushing off to the next thing.

However, even I have a threshhold for messiness. And this week, I reached it in my office.

Before: My desk

Before: My desk

Before: not my desk

Before: not my desk

Now, I have to admit that I work better with some mess around me. But not this much. My piles had become monstrous. For the second time in a day, I had to move stuff off of chairs for guests to sit down, and move other boxes to get into my file cabinet.

So, I took an hour an a half yesterday afternoon to sort, file, trash and clean. I took care of that niggling to-do pile — give this journal to my boss, take this pile to the shred-it box. I mapped out deadlines for all the points of my current projects and got them up on my white board. I grabbed the compressed air and blew WAY TOO MANY crumbs out of my keyboard. I scrubbed all surfaces with 409. I went through my desk files and put away finished projects

Now my office looks like this!

After: My desk

After: My desk

After: not my desk

After: not my desk

I’m going to get new plants or those empty pots, too. Maybe fake ones so I can’t kill them, but greenery nonetheless.

I can’t promise I’ll keep it this neat and clean for very long, but I’m being more conscientious at home, so maybe it will spill over to my office. For now, it feels fresh and clean, like a new start.

Coming up: Two weeks of vacation
April 17, 2009, 11:55 am
Filed under: work | Tags: , , ,

Last week, I requested two weeks of vacation in June. In a row. I thought a minute before hitting the SEND button on the request email. Would I get in trouble for taking two weeks off?

I’ve worked in life-killing environments before. You know, the kind where you get your hand slapped or worse if you’re 9 seconds late or try to leave 15 minutes early to get to your kid’s play on time. In one of those prisons, I asked to take two weeks off for MY WEDDING. I’d accrued the vacation. My job was so simple that I could finish it in two days a week. Yet, my boss’s boss, who held the reins on every vacation request, said no. I could take off 1 week, five days total. And if I tried to call in sick, I would get fired because she would know I was lying.

I subsequently used three of the five days a week when I was pretending to work (because my boss wouldn’t delegate) to find a new job. I gave my notice ten days before my wedding and announced that Friday would be my last day, as I would be taking one of my two weeks of vacation the following week. I started my next job two weeks after my wedding day. Yeah, it still feels good to have caused a little trouble for the people who were cramping my style.

I’ve never lasted long in those kinds of places. I need flexibility. I need it to be OK to walk in the door at 9:22 and leave at 4:57, having not taken a lunch, with the understanding that my job is such that someday soon, I’ll work an 11-hour day with no lunch. The time will all even out. I need it to be OK to call in sick when Lauren’s sick, or take a day off when she’s off of school. And to take vacation time.

I decided to take the two weeks in June to soften the blow from turning 40 on June 11. Steve’s taking me on a little trip, and I’m hoping that Laurel will be good and knocked up (she’s doing IVF tomorrow! fingers crossed!) and can go to a spa with me early in the first week. It’s been a while since I’ve taken that much time off. Usually, I take it a week at a time, especially on my birthday. I haven’t worked on my birthday in, like, forever. I think no one should have to. It should be a floating holiday.

I was happy to get my boss’s reply to my vacation request: Have fun! I shouldn’t have been worried, because last year, when I thought I’d be spending six weeks in Africa this summer, she didn’t blink when I asked for that much time off. She’s a woman who understands work-life balance. And she especially understands that taking time off of work makes people happier and more productive.

It’s a shame all bosses and companies don’t see it that way.

What do you think? Does your boss give you a hard time when you ask for time off? When was your last vacation? Leave me a comment!

I’ve been such a bitch
April 13, 2009, 10:42 am
Filed under: love and relationships, work | Tags: , , ,

When Steve told me he was taking this job, I was so depressed. I hate the restaurant industry. I hate the hours it makes people work. I hate the lifestyle it makes them live.

Steve took this job because it was his only option. I know that and I hate it. I feel that the company is stringing him along, because he’s still not in the job he was hired to do, and they are very fuzzy about timelines and criteria he needs to meet in order to get into that job.

He did not apply to be a general manager, and they tell him the didn’t hire him to be a general manager. So where’s the district manager job he’s supposed to be in? The one that requires about 50 hours a week, that puts him home for dinner and by noon on Saturdays? That’s the job I signed up to support, not this bullshit of 70- to 80-hour weeks of hard, physically and mentally exhausting labor.

Sunday was his day off. He was so exhausted all day he could hardly keep his eyes open. He fell asleep so deeply in the afternoon that it took him about 30 minutes to wake up fully. We went to bed last night at 9 and he was asleep almost immediately.

He doesn’t have time to do his laundry, get a haircut, go for a run. He leaves by 630 am and rarely gets home before 8 pm. Even on Saturdays. He is supposed to have Ryan from Friday through Sunday, but lately he’s barely seen him 4 hours each weekend.

I feel bad for him, but lately I’ve gotten so tired of supporting him. Part of this is his own doing, because he is a workaholic. He chooses to stay an extra two, four, six hours to get just one more thing done. That feels like he’s choosing work over us, over himself, over the family. He sees it as a temporary choice, and believes that the sooner things are under control, the sooner he can back off the hours.

I’ve watched all of this going on with resentment. For the past four months, it’s been me doing the majority of the cleaning, the laundry, the house projects–his jobs. He hasn’t noticed. Not just because he’s a guy (and not noticing is part of the male genotype) but because he’s too exhausted to notice.

I’ve been such a bitch to him. I’ve gotten mad at him and held a grudge because he isn’t “pulling his weight” around the house. He hasn’t been doing anything for me, such as seeing me, complimenting me, being romantic, taking me out on dates, initiating sex. And I’ve been whining about what I need him to give me. Last night at dinner, I told him that he needs to figure out a way to give me more than what he’s giving me now if he wants me to be there on the other side of this. Some of this comes from a fear that he’d not be there for me if the tables were turned.

How is this behavior making me a supportive partner? Aren’t we supposed to be there for each other through the best and worst? I’ve been acting like a martyr. I’ve been acting from a place of resentment instead of love. It’s not like he’s being mean and forgetful and blind because he doesn’t love me, or he doesn’t want to be with me.

He just has nothing left over to give.

I want things to be easy between us. I want him to be happy and self-confident, because when he’s that way, we’re that way.  I want us back, and I’m a big baby because things are so hard right now. I’m feeling forgotten and invisible. Each day that this goes on makes me feel just a little more disconnected from him.

I think he does need to back off of work, even five hours a week, so he can have something left for himself, me and the family. I understand why he is making the choices he’s making. I don’t like the choices regardless.

But I also could do a better job of remembering compassion, of acting from a place of love. And trusting that doing so will be worth it.

On winning an election
April 10, 2009, 9:54 am
Filed under: work | Tags: , , ,

I’ve run for a few things in my life: student council leadership spots, Miss America. I’ve won a couple, but mostly I’ve lost.

It’s the losses I remember, the stinging, shameful, I’m-not-popular-enough losses. Most painful memory of high school: running for treasurer of my junior class and getting booed during my speech. Why? I’ll never know. I’m not sure who was booing. But that experience killed a part of me that never quite recovered. Many hours of therapy later, I can think about it from a more detached point of view … and yet the experience still feels like a poke in the gut.

When I was married I ran for a seat on my neighborhood association and lost. I thought about running for school board, but just couldn’t get up the courage. It’s funny, because when I’m on a committee, invariably I wind up as a leader. I can’t help it. I’m bossy and organized and have good ideas. It’s the voting–which equals acceptance or rejection–that I don’t like. Appoint me any time. Just don’t ask me to run.

A few weeks ago, I received a call for nominations for my national professional organization’s steering committee. It’s an interesting group of people, comprised of communications leaders from cancer centers across the United States. Last year, I attended the annual conference, met some good people, learned a lot.

It would be fun to be on the steering committee. I could learn a lot from the very well-placed people who also sat on it. Yet, I waited until the last possible minute to send in my self-nomination. Part of me was all “why bother, you’ll never win.” But I threw my hat in the ring, to use the cliche.

When I saw the list of candidates I was competing with–their titles, which are bigger than mine at more prestigious organizations–I said, oh well. So much for that.

Then yesterday, I got a call from the committee chair, and I braced myself for him to say, “Unfortunately …”

Instead, he told me “Congratulations!”

So, I’m psyched. I now get to serve a two-year term, which means a little extra business travel for me (three trips a year, as opposed to the one trip a year I take now). I do have good things to offer this group, and I’m sure that I’ll also learn a lot from my experience.

I’m still a little shocked that I was elected. Shocked, but grateful for the chance to broaden my horizons and represent my center nationally. And grateful that others read my bio and thought I would be a good addition as well.

Little bits of despair
March 17, 2009, 2:56 am
Filed under: divorce, work | Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Tonight, as I finished up Jennifer Weiner’s “Little Earthquakes,” Steve tickled my back and asked me what is wrong. It was after midnight, on a worknight, and I was still awake.

“I’m just feeling anxious,” I told him. Five minutes later, I turned off the light and came to the living room so he could sleep.

There’s a bit of anxiety in the pit of my stomach, a slow worry of butterflies circling there. And then there are little bits of despair circling among the butterflies. Anxiety is about my lack of control of everything in my life. Despair is about wanting something that I cannot yet identify. I know that something has to do with how I spend the majority of my time: work.

I like my job. I like the people I work with. I believe in the important work my organization does. But I’m bored. Regardless of title or location or mission, this is essentially the same job I’ve been doing since I was 17 years old and editor of my high school newspaper. I’m damn good at it–great even. I’ve won awards, pretty awards that throw rainbows on my white office walls when the sun shines through them. I have more responsibility–aka, more work–in my current job. I have a little more clout. Still, it’s the same-old, same-old.

Every Monday, I receive a PR/marketing jobs list by email. Every Monday, I scan through the jobs. Nothing thrills me. None of the jobs listed are much different than what I’m doing now. The money is the same, or less. The cause, usually, is less inspiring. Seriously, I work for an NCI cancer center–exciting stuff is being done by smart people there. Several days each week, I get to learn more about biology, which actually interests me. People out there would love to have my job, with my benefits (10% match to my 5% 401k contribution, for example). And here, a kvetch that it’s not enough.

And bits of despair. My heart knows that, as good as this job is, it’s not how I want to spend my time for the foreseeable future. What do I want to do? I don’t know. There’s the rub.

Maybe I’m lazy at heart, because what I really would love to do is to NOT work for anyone. Do nothing at all. Retire. And maybe, just maybe, lessening the noise, the distraction in my life would allow me to figure out what’s next for me. I feel like something IS next but I can’t see what it is. I feel like the something is MORE. Bigger, yet not in an 8 to 5 way.

Actually, my ex accuses me of retiring in 2000–the year of the beginning of our demise. I hated, HATED my job and my boss. I was truly in a hostile work environment, and had I known better, I would have filed a lawsuit. Instead, I quit and started a freelance writing business. My intention was to work about 15 hours a week on freelance jobs and spend about 10 to 15 working on my personal writing–poetry, stories, maybe a novel. My oh-so-supportive ex told me, “Lynn, you quitting your job to become a poet is like me quitting my job to become a professional fly fisherman. Those are hobbies, not jobs.” Because at that time in my life I believed others’ opinions of me were more important than mine, I listened to him and didn’t write a lick of poetry, not a single story.

For the first six weeks I did nothing but detox. Three weeks after quitting, I stopped having nightly work nightmares. Four weeks later, I stopped eating Tums by the handful. Five weeks in, I started calling leads, and six weeks in I started my first two projects. Most days, I got up around 8, had breakfast, exercised, watched the Price is Right while getting ready for the day, worked for about four hours, ran errands and did housework, got dinner started and waited for the ex to come home. I was happier, even though my marriage sucked. I got pregnant after almost a year of trying, I believe partially because my stress level had dropped from RED to green. It didn’t matter that I was ew-y in the morning and really tired in the afternoon. I was in charge of my time. I took the mornings slowly and took naps. I went to client meetings by phone. I wrote website copy, an annual report, a series of newsletters for the nursing school and pharmacy school. I had a good stable of clients from the start. I did this routine for about six months, until I got my cancer diagnosis. Then I didn’t work much for the next nine months. Lauren was born in June. I had every intention of going back to work in October, but 9/11 wiped out the freelance market and I went to work part-time.

I loved working part-time: three days for them, four days for me. I got to spend time with my daughter. I got to spend time using my brain. I got to do mommy things with other mommies. I got to have grown-up conversations on a regular basis. I got to have the social outlet of a workplace, which I missed when I was at home with an infant all the time. I got to earn regular money without having to market myself. When I got divorced, I went to working four days a week–I needed more money, but my employer wouldn’t let me go full time. Secretly, I loved the time off. When my daughter went to full-day kindergarten, I started working every-other Friday as well. I still had that one extra day for me. I usually spent it writing, or taking pictures, or going for drives, or running errands so Lauren and I would have uninterrupted time on the weekend. In 2006, I started working full time again. That was hard. I missed having that Friday for me.

Eighteen months later I moved into my current job. It was a slight step up, and it was a change at least after being with the previous employer for almost seven years. The first year of this job was incredibly stressful: the politics, the learning curve, two enormous projects right off the bat. I went from being that person everyone went to for information to that person who knew zilch. When I found out I could claim comp time, I rejoiced. I don’t work much overtime anymore, but in the first three months I was averaging 50+ hours a week. The past nine months have slowed down a bit. I’ve decided that I cannot go on acting as if I am a full-fledged department when I am only one person. Unfortunately, that means disappointing some people who I have over-promised and will now need to under-deliver. (Lucky for me there will be no raises for University employees this year, regardless of performance.) I feel like I run on a quarter-tank most of the time. I’m committed but not fully engaged.

I keep thinking about these little bits of despair that float up to my head like plastic bags caught in a draft. They mean something–I’m off path, perhaps. I felt this same way in November of 2002 when, deathly ill with the flu, my ex refused to go to the store for more Kleenex, and I lurched to King Soopers myself, wiping my nose on my sleeve through my fevered haze. I remember not thinking, but feeling that I wanted more than this. But THIS is what I’d committed to. THIS was all I could see through the windshield. I could daydream about being with someone else–a man who loved me and respected me, who didn’t beat me down–but  couldn’t see that daydream as reality. And here I am, almost seven years later, feeling the same way about my career, and feeling solid in the relationship department. Right now, at almost 4 am on St. Patrick’s Day 2009, I can’t see anything except the career I currently have.

Since I was a little girl, I knew I would be a writer when I grew up, and I am. It’s not so much what I do, but what I am–the essence of me. I’ve gone the route in my writing life that requires the least amount of risk. Journalism. Corporate communications. Public relations. I get to write for a living, a good living, I say, but the honest truth is writing is perhaps 15 percent of my job. I’m a project manager, which is fine for now, but not forever.

There are days that I fantasize about just calling in “done.” Realistically, I can’t do that right now. I’m the bigger bread winner. And I like having money for things like haircuts in a real salon, and occasional vacations like the mini-break we just took. And my simple Honda Civic. And food on the table. And TiVo. So tomorrow morning (or maybe that’s this morning, given the current time), I will get up and go to work, and I will do a good if not excellent job, and I will generally not feel bad about the work I’m doing, and I will sometimes get really excited about a story I stumble upon. I am grateful that I have this job, which pays well, is flexible and helps promote a place that does an enormous amount of good in the world.

And I’ll continue to pay attention to the little bits of despair, and do my best to listen for the message they are sending me.