Cancer Update #18

Jan 3, 2018

Dear Friends and Family,

My recovery from the brain surgery on Dec 15 is going in leaps and bounds. I can read again – thank god. It is hard to imagine living without reading. So much of who I am is tied up in reading and writing. Immediately post surgery, I was very wobbly when I walked, initially using a walker. I’m not wobbly so much now and today I ventured out by myself on public transit. Most of all cognitive function is returning. There were some very odd sensations the first week home when I was challenged by sorting and sequencing. I couldn’t figure out where the different categories of garbage went – compost, recycle, trash. I’d stand in the middle of the kitchen and puzzle. Or I’d put all the breakfast makings on the counter and then stare at them – what do I pick up next? This was both curious and terrifying. I’m greatly relieved to be able to do these ordinary logistical sequences that I’ve always taken for granted. And I’ve returned to computers. My iPhone no longer looks like a foreign object.

Some of the missing peripheral vision has even returned. At this point it is sort of patchy. As I read a line of text, the left side of the line sometimes isn’t there, until, of course, I turn my head and there is it. There is an odd repeated image that happen sometimes. I think reading again is learning how to put the information together in a new way. Everything is much slower, but who cares. I’m just grateful I can read. Part of my rehab will be attending a “low vision clinic”. Presumably they will teach me some more strategies for coping with these new eyes.

This is what the neurosurgeons said was most likely to occur. Brain surgery involves poking and cutting in the brain (!!!) and, like any other injured part of the body, there is bruising and swelling. As that settles, cognitive function is mostly returning.

I’m now in the land of metastasized breast cancer. That means more treatments and close monitoring. On Friday we meet with the Brain Mets team. That’s the “brain metastasis” team. We’re talking brain radiation. It all seems very sci fi. And then I go into full body MRIs every 3 months.

It hasn’t even been three weeks since the surgery. I am amazed at the human body’s capacity to heal; I’m also deeply appreciative for a publicly funded medical system which did emergency brain surgery on me less than 48 hours after arriving at Emergency. Mostly though it is the love and supportive of my friends, family and community that keeps me going. And central to all that is Peter who has brought me tenderness, attentiveness, deep love and marvelous meals throughout. This isn’t the journey I would have chosen, but since I’m on it, I marvel at the hidden treasures it offers me.

Thanks you for your letters, cards, books and gifts. Thank you for dog-walking, transportation, form filling out, food, research, love and encouragement. I feel held by all of you.

As always, feel free to pass the letters along. I love getting your responses, but I probably won’t reply as there are many of you and I’m trying to get into the studio between the 5 million hospital visits.



Peter’s Update

This piece was written by my husband, Peter Marmorek, when I was unable to do my own writing. I have included it here as it is part of the story.

December 24, 2017

Hello dear friends and family,

Peter here, Christmas Eve day. I wanted to send an update to you, as so many have been writing with messages of loving support to Diana and me, and there are more cracks for the messages to slip through than there usually are. My apologies, as always, if you get multiple copies of this message or if you’ve already heard some of what follows.

Diana had a 2 cm tumour removed from her left occipital lobe on Friday, Dec 15th. She came home from the hospital on Tuesday, and has been resting here and recovering ever since. But she’s lost a lot: the lower right side of her field of vision, most of her reading ability, much of her computer /phone ability. Logical sequencing of tasks is still problematic as well. Physically she has difficulty manoeuvring, as objects will jump in and out of her perception. And there’s a new wave of side effects from the new set of drugs that she’s trying to cope with.

On Friday, we met a brain radiation doctor at Princess Margaret Hospital who said that he expected most of what she has lost will come back in the next few weeks, which was very cheering. He gave us the stats on probability of recurrent brain cancer which were pretty depressing, as the breast cancer has metastasized and its seeds will probably grow elsewhere. (This isn’t certain, as the pathology report hasn’t come back yet, and there is a small chance that this is an unrelated third cancer.) We’ve also met with occupational therapists who will gradually become part of the rehabilitation.

Diana’s spirit and emotional affect are still recognizably Diana. She’s certainly depressed by the sudden diminishment in what she can do, and increase what she can’t but she remains fully present in the strange new world into which she’s been beamed. We did a Solstice ritual together, hoping that we have moved through the darkest time and that the light will return here as in the heavens. Yesterday she walked to our local library to return some books (1200 metres), holding on to my arm. I had thought it too far for a first walk, but she wanted to do it, and managed to. (Library was closed, of course, which meant we didn’t have to pay the fines. We’ll see if they track us down.) And last night she watched a movie Wilderbeasts, and was able to follow it. (Nice New Zealand scenery, basically harmless plot).

We are hugely grateful for the offers of help from our friends, both of food (thanks, but I love cooking and it’s useful therapy) and dog-walking (Rui is a constant solace, but particularly on weekends I’m happy to share the walks with anyone around.) My brother has lengthened his Toronto visit, which allows him to offer support to Mom, and therefore lighten the load on me. And Amy, Wayne, Laraine, Mary, Chris….so many kind and loving friends who I’m afraid I’ve omitted. Thank you all.

Many of you have asked how I’m doing, and I guess the answer would be that I’m generally managing. It is a challenge to discover how to navigate this new normal. I’m realizing how much the trajectory of our lives is going to be very different from what we had thought it would be, barely two weeks ago. But the future is even more opaque than usual, as we wait to see which of the lost skills and perceptual abilities return. I’ve cut back on a lot, but am trying to keep exercising and staying healthy. Sometimes I feel like I’m doing well, sometimes it just feels overwhelming. In those moments I try and narrow focus, (What do I have to do in the next five minutes?) which helps.

much love


Cancer Update #17

Dec 14, 2017

Dear Friends & Family,

I’m writing with very bad news. I was diagnosed this week with a cancerous tumour on my brain. It is probably the breast cancer metastized. I am in hospital now awaiting emergency brain surgery. Just saying those words, “brain surgery”,  horrifies me, as I’m sure it does you. I feel so defeated.

For the last few months I’ve had an odd set of disparate symptoms which last week finally coalesced into a whole picture. I’ve been having what I call a cognitive slide. I notice it most clearly working on the computer. Simple sequential tasks which I’ve done a million times – moving files from one folder to another, remembering how I’ve organized the files in a particular project – suddenly seem very challenging. Instead of doing these tasks suconsciously, I have to furrow my brow and think hard to do them. For awhile I just made jokes about the aging brain, but after awhile I realized I was losing ground more rapidly. There were other weird symptoms – I started bumping into things. I’d turn to squeeze by a chair in the dining room and I’d miss. I’ve become more unbalanced recently, even falling over once while crossing the studio floor. I started having sharp headaches on one side of my head. A couple of times I was reading and it seemed as if half the page wasn’t there, but as soon as I’d look directly everything was fine. Finally last week I had a near miss. I was driving and I grazed the passenger mirror against a parked car. I realized I was but an inch away from the other car. I hadn’t seen it.  I drove home very slowly and quite terrified. It was as if my peripheral visio had a hole in it. What was I going to miss? Who was I going to hit? I decided it was too dangerous for me to drive. After this, the pieces began to fall into place. A stroke? A tumour? Alzheimer’s or dementia?

I told Peter on Saturday, saw my doctor on Tuesday and she sent me immediately to emergency. Wednesday I spent waiting for a bed and waiting for a visit with the neurosurgeon. Here I am on Thursday awaiting surgery – probably on Friday afternoon but that could change.

The neurosurgeon said I’d be up walking and talking shortly after the surgery. The tumour is is in the left occipital lobe, right in the vision center. There is the risk of further damage in this area from the surgery; on the other hand that’s the advantage of 2 sides to the brain; the brain that changes itself and all that.

I can’t believe I have to do All This all over again. All this hospital world – listening to patients talk about their bowel movements, listening to machines beeping incessantly at me, listening for doctors to give me a few minutes of their overworked time, let alone all those life and death issues that hang precipitously over head.

I hope still to do my show in May. Thats when the spring flowers are out and the earth reminds us that joy still wanders the planet if only for moments.

Feel free to share this letter with anyone. I look forward to getting responses from you, but I won’t be replying. Please don’t come and visit me for now.



Cancer Update #16

October 5, 2017

Dear Family and Friends,

My last Cancer Update letter to you happened while I was undergoing radiation. That finished at the end of April and here we are in October. I’ve continued to have an intravenous breast cancer treatment called Herceptin every three weeks. Herceptin isn’t exactly chemo, but it is related. It targets proteins that grow on the surface of the cancer cells – or something like that. They’ve explained the mechanism to me a few times, but it doesn’t quite stick – “genes that overexpress proteins, monoclonal antibodies, antigens and targeted cells.” Got it?

So the radiation has had some side effects. Initially there was sunburned skin and sores on the radiated breast. That settled down and then pieces of my breast became hard and leathery. Then, two months after the treatment finished, my breast began to heat up, swell and become very heavy. They (you know they are) said it was normal. The lymph system was reacting to changes in the tissue that radiation brought. It would probably go away in time.

A day arrived in July when I finally had a symptom that clearly had nothing to do with cancer or its treatment – itchy ears. How weird is that? At last I had a reason to visit my GP, who I never get to see anymore because I have so many different teams to visit – the renal team, the hematology team, the radiation team, the liver team, the medical oncology team and the Maple Leafs. Ok. Maybe not. My GP didn’t seem too worried about my strangely itchy ears and off I went to BC for the month of August. While there, my still hot and heavy radiated breast began to itch. Eventually it broke out into a red and bumpy rash. Then I got some other itchy patches. By this time I was back in Ontario, so I took myself off to the radiation team. The doctor there didn’t quite throw her hands up into the air, but she might as well have. She said it was most definitely not a radiation problem. She pinged me off to a dermatology team, but they couldn’t see me for another week. Meanwhile my renal team was worried, so they ponged me off to my GP in case it was shingles. She pinged me to a dermatologist who could see me sooner and that one ponged me back to both my medical oncology team and my renal team (double shot). My medical oncologist can only be accessed through the breast cancer triage phone line. I pinged and ponged through that system and he finally called. After listening to my tale, he said I was one of the very rare (scary words in the medical world) people who has a drug reaction to Herceptin, itchy ears and all. Lots of pinging and ponging to get right back next door to the room where I saw the radiation team. If only they would talk to one another.

So now I am off Herceptin, though, unfortunately it stays in my system for about 5 months. I goop myself up with a topical corticosteroid as I still have lots of red and itchy patches on my torso. Nonetheless I am relieved to know what the problem is. This too will pass.

Soon they take out the ‘port’ that is inserted under the skin in my chest wall. (This is to make drugs in, blood out much easier.) Then I’m done my breast cancer treatments. Of course, I do always remind myself that Cancer #1 will make a return visit at some point. That’s a given.

It is odd to think of being done, or anyway this hiatus of ‘done’. Who am I now on the other side of two cancer treatments? The body is a little worse for wear, but isn’t everyone’s? The spirit seems surprisingly intact.

I continue to be curious about how people live with long term, chronic illnesses and cancer in particular. I’ve discovered that there is a world of “illness narratives” out there. Like any new world I’ve ventured into – alternative schools, Outward Bound, vegetarian diets, feminist theatre, pottery, Unitarianism, or gardening – it has been living here all this time like a parallel universe. I hope to continue both writing and making visual art about the discoveries I am making in this new territory. If you haven’t already done so, you might enjoy seeing my artwork & writing featured both in and on Ars Medica. It is an online journal about medical humanities. Here is the link:

The easiest way to read it is to download the whole issue. Take a look at the editorial as well.

I’ve added a few new names to this list. If you don’t want to be on it, let me know. As always, please feel no obligation to respond to this letter. I have now posted all the letters on a blog at

Feel free to share the URL if you think it would be helpful to anyone. For the Torontonians on the list, I’m happy to announce that I’m having a show of my cancer art next spring at Propeller Gallery, April 29 – May 13, 2018.



Accepting Illness

This is a talk I gave to a Unitarian congregation in April 2017

The school of illness has taught me much about acceptance. As many of you know I have two kinds of cancer plus kidney disease & anemia. I am currently receiving radiation treatment for Cancer #2, breast cancer. I have had to find ways of navigating the changes all this disease and disability has brought to my life. There is a full curriculum in this school. Acceptance of the body, of limitations in the world, of time and of change.

Jan 21, 2015. Those of us with these serious, life threatening diseases all have our diagnosis dates firmly memorized. But for some of us, myself included, the time leading up to diagnosis was a time of inarticulate chaos. I had known for a couple of years that something was wrong, but I somehow didn’t have the language to even name what I was experiencing. I didn’t quite know what I would say was wrong if I went to the doctor. I vaguely thought that the deterioration I began to feel was related to an old foot injury and the embrace of middle age.

It was a June day in my art studio a few years earlier. A moment arrived when I could no longer keep out the overwhelming fear and worry that had been nibbling at the edges of consciousness. I doubled over and began to sob and sob. On some profoundly deep level I knew that something was very wrong. I could feel that I was never again going to do the more strenuous physical activities I loved like hiking in the mountains or portaging canoes through the wilderness. I knew I was entering a room full of losses.

Somehow, in the midst of that grief, the enormity of the changes began to dawn on me. I started thinking about who I was going to be as I shifted into this state of disability needing help. I had no idea yet just how serious all this “wrongness” was or how much help I’d need. But I knew I didn’t want to dive into that tempting pool of self-pity calling to me like sirens on the rocks. I started to think about how you live with illness, and I did not want to be a whiner. I’ve seen some who chose victimhood, clutch & squeeze their needy hands around the necks of their helpers. If I was going to get support from others, especially my husband, I needed to find a more life giving way of asking for and receiving help. I wanted to come from a place of clarity and gratitude. It was a choice.

When I was young, I was horrified as I watched age and illness narrow the boundaries of people I knew. Youth and health seemed to be so much about expanding and opening and energy. That’s what I thought real life was. I couldn’t imagine that anything positive could come from narrowing. In illness and in age my boundaries have narrowed. I am smaller in the world. I walk down the hallway and there are fewer doors to choose from. But then it turned out that when I chose and stepped into a room, to my surprise, different doors opened out from it. Life does keep expanding, just not in ways I had imagined. Prior to my diagnosis I had had a long dry period artistically. I couldn’t get a focus, or a theme or a project. I now know I was very ill, but at the time I just felt stuck. I tried a bit of this and a bit of that, but nothing jelled. Then I was diagnosed with the first cancer, multiple myeloma. You might be surprised to know that this was actually a relief. I finally had some clarity and words about what was wrong. And with that I suddenly knew exactly what kind of art I needed to make. Even as I was frightened by the diagnosis, I was excited, focused, and energized with the visions of the art projects I was going to give birth to. In my case it was art about the nature of cancer. I would use this plague that had descended upon me. Nothing like a Mortality’s cold grip to get me in motion!

Carrying out the projects wasn’t so easy because my body now had limitations that the young, healthy Diana hadn’t had. Of course my younger self had met limitations – there are always limitations – but they hadn’t been limitations of energy and mobility. My impetuous, crazy 35 year old self could work all night. Acceptance of this aging, diseased body required that I address my limitations as I planned my projects. At one point I was making life-sized sculpture. I decided I wanted to be able to move each finished piece by myself, but I’m not nearly as strong as I used to be. So I made them out of light aluminum pipes, wire mesh and plaster bandages. Then I built some dollies so that I could move them. Acceptance has made me more ingenious.

I don’t hurry as much as I used to. I notice this particularly on public transit. I’m the one holding onto the hand rail as I descend down onto the subway platform. I’m the one not keeping up with the rush and the thrum of the pace. That is because I can’t move quickly or fluidly anymore. So like any person with a physical disability, I have to deal with this. There are moments of inadequacy when I almost want to tell the impatient commuters that I didn’t used to be like this. But what is the point of that? Here I am, moving slowly. Sometimes people give me their seats and I graciously accept. And you know, the world looks different when you move slowly. I watch the choreography of how people move into and out of subway trains. I think about how as a society we hurry from moment to moment and I wonder about all the rushing. I think about how older people the world over have had to learn how to dance to a different, slower rhythm. And I remember that the slow dances carry their own, more intimate pleasures.

I’m not always noble and philosophical about living with cancer. Some days I’m nauseous, tired, grumpy and short tempered. Then I don’t even care that my life is all about tired… I am one with my Exhaustion – that’s all I am. And then I am infuriated, mostly at myself, that life seems to only be about weariness. I have to work to separate some part of self from the fatigue and the fury. Hello human person. It takes effort to love and accept myself through these times, and I do it only with varying degrees of success.

One of the challenges of acceptance is to balance carefully on the line between giving up and pushing forward. Sometimes I feel I’m just not trying hard enough – to get to the gym, to write another exhibition submission, to do my share of household tasks, or to go to more cultural events. I feel that if I don’t do these things I am giving up, even though I’m tired, my bones are weary and my muscles hurts. Sometimes I think I am imagining these aches and pains to get out of going. Am I really just a lazy slug? When I was younger and healthier, I thought that ‘acceptance’ was another word for giving up on life. Now I see how our culture relentlessly pushes us forward. Progress it is called. Instead I need to cultivate compassion. It requires that I look more nakedly at what I can and can’t do. I can’t just motor over myself and not notice what is going on. Sometimes I have to accept that I can’t do, do, do. I just have to be.

I want to talk a little more about the flesh. That is, after all what this is about. My body. We live in a culture that is obsessed with the youthful body. The youthful body Photoshopped and sculpted into unrealistic, impossible shapes and surfaces. In this paradigm age is unpleasant, scars and disease are ugly. ‘Normal’ is defined as something other than me. I, like many large women, have spent much of my life hating my body. I have given energy to this self hatred, nourished it with tidbits from my daily life. A sideways glance of myself reflected in a store window would disgust me. So here is the good news. Cancer ridden, new scars from surgery, the wrinkles and flabbiness of age, lack of energy and impaired mobility – I actually have more moments of sensating and enjoying my body now than I ever have before. That’s acceptance. All those years of fantasy – wanting, wishing and hoping that my body would be different than it was; I’m done with that. Now I accept that this is the body I have. Diana is this flesh. Mortality’s glance at the watch and sighing tone told me if not now, then when?

I wouldn’t wish cancer upon anyone; however since it is here, how can I make use of it? How can any of us use the catastrophes that Life serves up? I have spent much of my life living as if tomorrow was going to bring the answers. Now I feel that Mortality, because that is really the great gift of illnesses such as these, is reminding me to throw out the illusions. There only is accepting what is here right now. Let me unwrap the treasures within that. Thank you.

Cancer Update #15

April 12, 2017

Dear Friends & Family,

I gave a talk recently to the Unitarians called Accepting Illness. Here is a link to an audio recording of the actual talk – 12.5 minutes with an introduction from Allison Kabayama:

Of course, I’d love to hear your reaction to it.

I have 2 more weeks of radiation treatment to go, with 4 weeks already completed. Surgery, chemo and radiation – first they chopped  me up, then they marinated me, and now they are cooking me. Radiation is an odd treatment. I have to go every weekday – that’s the tedious part as it is often in the middle of the day and schlepping down to the hospital and back is tiresome. I just getting going on something at the studio and then it is time to leave.  The treatment itself is painless, kind of like having an x-ray. You hear a machine hold a sustained buzz, then the machine moves to a different position and buzzes again. The whole thing only takes about 20 minutes and the appointments mostly run on time. The odd part is the set-up. There is a team of  3 or 4 people who give the treatment – radiation therapists, they are called. They are almost all young. I find that very odd. It is not a physically arduous task, except for keeping pace. Radiation has been around for quite awhile, so why aren’t there older therapists? I’ve changed into a hospital gown; I go in and place myself on the table. Within minutes there are very pleasant people pushing my breast around and adjusting my body. “Don’t help me,” they always say as they nudge my torso. Various number scales are projected across my chest and armpit as they align me with the radiation beams. I hold very still and they all leave the room so they don’t get exposed to the rays. There is a peculiar chiming sequence that indicates they are out of the room, kind of like the subway door tone. Then the giant machine revolves above me first one way and then the other. The team comes back in and readjusts me for part two. Like any routine, the whole repetitive process becomes normalized very quickly.

So far I haven’t had any of the side effects common to radiation; however they may still be waiting for me around this last corner. Fatigue, skin blistering and skin toughening are the most common. Fingers crossed that I don’t go there.

At the end of April (April 27), I’m finished almost all of my breast cancer treatment. I do get an intravenous drug called Herceptin every 3 weeks until the end of November. Then I’m truly done.




Cancer Update #14

February 7, 2017 – Q&A on Creativity & Chemo Update

Dear Friends and Family,

I was recently interviewed by Roxanne Brathwaite for her blog, Suite City Woman, about creativity and my new studio. If you didn’t see it thru Face Book, please go and have a look:

I was very happy with the results. Of course I’d love your feedback, either on the blog or by email.

Meanwhile I’ve been living through the latest round of chemo. It began at the end of November and it ends next Friday. Do you know the difference between a drug reaction and a drug side effect? Nor did I. This particular poison is known for its reactions – that’s the bad things that happen while they actually give the drug – so first they give you a whole lot of pre-meds to counter the possibilities. Initially I had no reaction, so they took off the pre-meds. On week #4 I began the allergic reaction – a cough that wouldn’t let me get a breath, a rising flush through my neck and face and finally a weird light headedness. It all happened so fast, I didn’t know what was occurring. Fortunately a very astute nurse was suddenly in front of me saying, “Are you okay?” “No,” I said. “Something is very wrong.” Within in seconds there were 4 nurses around me and I could tell that protocol had kicked in – poison turned off, oxygen in my nose, blood pressure taken (& rising) and a doctor called. Somehow this all settled down, the pre-meds were given and the poison tap was turned back on. I had this same reaction twice more despite the pre-meds, though I was able to recognize it sooner. On one of these occasions I asked if they hadn’t intervened, would it have killed me? Yes, was the answer. Good to know the lay of the land!

The drug side effects have taken longer to kick in as they are cumulative. There have been minor effects – nausea, nose bleeds, hair loss and skin rashes – as well as more major ones. Nerve neuropathy in my fingers and toes and now it seems that some of my finger nails are going to come off. It has become difficult to do buttons up – actions that need the fine motor skills. Last week I had two shortness of breath episodes which were very frightening. Chemo is on Fridays and one of the pre-meds is a steroid which is keeping me wide awake for both Friday and Saturday nights. That makes Sunday very sleepy. Some of the nausea has turned to vomiting. There is a persistent cough and cold which doesn’t want to heal without white blood cells. Overall I feel run down and debilitated. And fatigued.

Unfortunately, unlike Cancer #1 where I have a fabulous oncologist whom I love, for Cancer #2 I have a medical oncologist whom I dislike intensely. He is arrogant and self centered. Trying to get information from him leads back either to how aggrieved he is (the nurses, blood technicians and administrators don’t do their jobs properly) or is an opportunity for him to talk about himself. I’ve given up trying to learn anything from him and I concentrate on trying to solve reaction or side effect problems. He did come up with a drug to counter the allergic reaction. Fortunately his junior doctors and the nurses in chemo are great, so I feel covered by them.

So how am I managing all this? One advantage of having already been through a brutal treatment with Cancer #1 is that I know that I’ll come out the other side of this. When you are in the midst of the misery, it is hard not to believe that this is reality for evermore. Mostly I can remember that there is a farther shore to be reached. I’m not as hard on myself. I accept that I will have little energy and will feel smaller in the world. I don’t expect that my art projects will continue apace while I do this. I decided I would live life and cancel if necessary. I’ve only had to use the Cancer Cancel Clause a few times, all in the last couple of weeks.

Going into this chemo time I decided to take up knitting again as a good project for home – creative, low energy and a soothing way to pass the time. Then the Pussy Hat Project came along! Those were the cat eared pink knitted hats in response to Trump’s “Grab ‘em by the pussy” remark about women. A taking back of our pussies as it were. So that was a really fun way to channel my energy – maker culture meets political action even with low energy. Three of my hats went to the Women’s March on Washington and I wore a fourth here in Toronto’s march. Afterwards a friend asked me to knit 2 more for her and her teenage daughter.

As always Peter’s loving care helps me through all this. He continues to cook me marvellous meals, even adapting to my lack of taste buds but my increased sensitivity to texture. Friends have stepped up for dog walking as I’m unable to do my share. And people send loving cards and messages which really help. More and more friends have reached out to me recently with their own cancer diagnoses, especially breast cancer. It is a plague upon us. I’m glad to be able to talk with them, as those connections make all the difference.

When the chemo finishes, I get a five week break to recover and then six weeks of radiation. In theory, its side effects aren’t as bad as chemo’s ones. I hope to be done this breast cancer treatment sometime in early May. Just in time for the nice weather.

As always if you want off this list, let me know. While I love getting your responses, there is no need to do so. I do hope you go and look at the interview, just so we both remember that I’m more than chemo. In case you missed it, here is the link to the first interview as well: