"Healing may not be so much about getting better, as about letting go of everything that isn't you – all of the expectations, all of the beliefs – and becoming who you are." ~ Rachel Naomi Remen
Today, I would like to introduce Gail Konop Baker. Gail and I crossed paths recently. In that crossing, I experienced both her generous heart and a bit of her "story". Her story is one of challenge, of hope, and of a realization of what truly matters in life. In her early forties, Gail was diagnosed with breast cancer. From that, she has built herself back up. In that process, and as part of the journals she kept during those days – a book, Cancer Is A Bitch, was written.
As you think about your life, and wherever you are in that…read along as you experience part of Gail's life. We never know what fully lies in front of us…
1. Tell us a little bit about who “you” are (family, career, any special life experiences you’d like to share, etc.)
Who am I? That is an excellent question and one that I ponder daily. Sometimes hourly. Who I am has evolved and is evolving over time. Constants? I am a mother of three totally kick-ass children, a writer and a passionate and curious seeker. Things that have evolved in the past few years? I am a published author, professional speaker and marathon runner. Things still evolving? I am a yoga teacher-in-training and on a perpetual journey to discover who I want to be.
Lance's Commentary: My daughter and I were recently in NYC. We saw a sign in Times Square, with those words…"Kick Ass". She took a picture and made it her phone's background….(it didn't last!!).
2. You have written a book about your battle with cancer. Tell us about that process, and what it has meant for you personally.
I never planned to write a breast cancer memoir. I never planned to get the cancer that would prompt that. But in 2006 after just completing my second novel about a woman who finds a lump in her breast and thinks she might have breast cancer and wonders if she’s lived a meaningful life, I went in for my annual mammogram and was diagnosed with ductal carcinoma in situ and a week later had a lumpectomy.
It rocked my world. Stunned and panicked and paralyzed me. And even after I was told it was non-invasive and they got it all out and I was “cured,” I fell into a funk. I couldn’t write, couldn’t think, couldn’t do anything other than Google health sites and make homemade batches of organic facial creams and scribble my deepest rawest craziest most intimate thoughts into a journal.
I never planned to show those words to anyone. In fact I wrote them thinking this was a way I didn’t have to burden my friends and family with my crazy thoughts. Nobody I was close to had ever had cancer. Not my parents. None of my friends. And while I knew they cared, I felt alone in my deepest thoughts and fears. Eventually I wrote those thoughts into an essay that I called “CANCER IS A BITCH” and sent it to some trusted writer friends who said it was the most powerful thing I’d ever written. But lose the word, bitch, they both said. Nobody will ever publish like that.
Honestly, I didn’t know what I had written or what to do with it. But soon after that I read that Literary Mama was looking for columnists and on a whim I pitched it as a column and they offered me a monthly column. The responses from readers were so soulful, I was floored. Many hadn’t even had cancer but they either knew someone who had or just responded to the midlife issues that I wrote about. Issues like what it meant to reach midlife and wonder if this was the life I meant to live, if I was the person I’d always meant to be. Next thing I knew I pitched the idea of writing it into a book to a lit agent and he offered to represent me and sold it.
But what I was writing and thinking about evolved over time. At first I thought I was trying to record my thoughts and feelings as openly and honestly and deeply as possible. But after I started connecting with readers, I discovered the more open I was about all aspects of my life, the more universal my message. People responded to my honesty, which, in turn, inspired me to share more of me.
The other major incident was that a good friend of mine was diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer and another neighbor with a stage IV brain tumor, both middle-aged. Both were also mothers of children still at home. At that point, my story evolved into a bigger story. I felt this connection to them (even though I was “cured”). And then beyond that a kind of collective grief. I wanted to speak about cancer in order to try to de-stigmatize it. I do believe that cancer is one of the last standing taboos. You say the word and lot of people wince and physically back off. I wanted to give voice to that. To stand in solidarity with those who had been pierced by cancer’s insidious claw.
More than four years have past since my surgery and the whole experience is starting to fade, other than the fact that I wrote a book about it and still speak and talk about it when people ask, and the profound life-altering effect, I have in many ways left the trauma behind and moved on.
Lance's Commentary: Writing can be therapeutic. As I read your thoughts, I'm reminded of how true this is. Sometimes, a pen and paper can offer so much healing…
3. “Cancer is a Bitch”…the title of your book – gives the first impression that pretty much cancer is a real evil. Could you describe what inspired the title, and what the real meaning behind this book is.
As I said earlier, I originally wrote an essay inspired by the journals and the first line of the essay was “I am sitting topless in the oncologist’s office on Valentine’s Day. Cancer is a Bitch.” I guess I meant that cancer is too forceful, it backs you into a wall, it sits on top of you, crushing your sternum, it doesn’t let you say uncle, it doesn’t back down. At least that’s how hearing those words felt to me initially. I thought the title would be changed before publication, they usually are. It is a little hard to roll off your tongue especially in social gatherings; I cleared an adult table at a Bar Mitzvah once. And of course all my 12 year-old son’s friends wanted a copy of it and I worried social services might come and take me away. But I do think the title captures the sassy, edgy, humorous tone of the book.
The real meaning of the book is that facing my mortality at such a young age forced me into a midlife reckoning with myself and inspired me to take charge of my life. And eventually soar (well, I’m starting to soar). I hope the message people walk away with is that if or when you get smacked down by a bitch (like cancer or divorce, or an accident, or losing a job, or any other unexpected tragedy), go ahead and wallow and go a little nutty and then you can pick yourself up, dust yourself off and do and be exactly what you want to do and be. Fewer “whys,” more “why nots.” No excuses. No apologies.
Lance's Commentary: Gail, this is a powerful example of just how much we value heartfelt honesty. I can't imagine what it must be like to hear those words…the words spoken to you, telling you that YOU have cancer. Yet, in your sharing of all of this, I think there's this deeper part of all of us – that of how we connect with caring and honesty.
4. Since writing the book what has this meant for you both personally and professionally?
Professionally? The book launched my writing career. I had been writing for more than 20 years and while I’d had some minor success publishing in small journals and winning some awards, I hadn’t published a book. While on the road promoting it, I discovered I enjoyed speaking to audiences and that launched my public speaking career.
Personally? The scare and promoting the book inspired me to take even better care of myself. Since the scare I have run two half marathons and one full marathon, started my yoga teacher training, detoxed my diet and look and feel better than I did in my thirties. I also detoxed my life. I decided now was the time to live exactly the way I’d always imagined.
Lance's Commentary: I love that you've found good out of this! Cancer is a nasty thing (a bitch, I suppose…). And from this, I get a real sense that it has helped to propel you into some wonderful directions in your life. It's so good to hear the positive that has come from a very challenging moment in life.
5. Tell us one unexpected thing that has happened since writing your book.
I think discovering what a shameless ham I am in front of audiences really surprised me. Not much intimidates or scares me anymore.
6. Gail, what does a typical day look like for you?
I wake around 6:30 a.m. do 10 minutes of meditation starting with a devotion of gratitude. I then do 10-15 minutes of yoga just to get the bodily juices flowing. Stand on my head to both reverse gravity and get some blood in there. I wake him between meditation and yoga and then go down and let the dogs out and feed them (two yellow labs). Then I squeeze a fresh lemon into a glass of water and make coffee and breakfast, drive my son to school. When I am in focused writing mode (like I have been recently trying to finish up a new book proposal), I try not to get sucked into the internet world that likes to seduce me. Instead, I dive straight into whatever I was working on the previous day, before anything interrupts my brain flow. Two hours minimum. My reward after that is the internet. Facebook is my crack! I answer any pressing e-mails and make a list of practical things I have to do. After that it’s either a run or yoga or on very stressful days, both! Shower and then either more writing or errands or driving the carpool. Or all three! When I am promoting or giving a speech, the day is entirely different. For speaking it’s all about the hair and outfit (kidding… sort of!) and for interviews it’s all about making the same thing I have said many times sound fresh and interesting. I don’t like to rehearse too much for speaking or interviews since I have discovered that I operate better off the cuff.
Lance's Commentary: I find exercise to be so good, and for much more than the physical benefits that really took me down that road. And – I'm doing my first marathon this year! So…a typical day for me…involves running (kidding…sort of!!). We should have coffee someday!
7. Anything new you have coming up?
Yes, I am working on a new book that I am very excited about. The topic is marriage. It promises to be very juicy and humorous and inspiring (at least that’s what I’m hoping).
Lance's Commentary: Marriage can definitely have some juicy and humorous moments…this sounds like a GREAT book!
8. Deep down, what makes you uniquely “you”?
I am quirky and curious and very alive. It is hard for me to predict exactly what or whom will turn me on but when I am turned on it’s like high voltage energy gone wild.
Lance's Commentary: "Energy gone wild"!!! Hey, now that's a pump me up kind of moment!
Closing Comments: Gail, it's an honor having you here! Your story is inspiring. As I sit here, never having had cancer…I take this one really important thing from everything you've shared today. NOW is important. And am I truly living the life that I desire? We never know when it could all change. Thank you for sharing a bit of YOU here today!
UPDATE: Interested in reading Gail's book? Gail is offering signed copies of "Cancer Is A Bitch". If you're interested, please contact Gail, including your name and address.