Getting the Lead Out: How Led Zeppelin Helped Me Fight Breast Cancer

Zepp Denmark

I didn’t understand why I kept doing it. Nearly every night in the latter weeks of undergoing chemotherapy for an aggressive form of breast cancer, I stayed up late, sometimes into the dark hours of early morning, watching Led Zeppelin concerts from the late 1960s and early 1970s on You Tube. And okay, I admit it. It wasn’t just during the last days of chemo that I was dialing up Page, Plant and Co. It was on through the mastectomy of my right breast and the first of my reconstructive surgeries.

What was the deal? It wasn’t like I had just discovered the band. I grew up with them.

I felt a bit unmoored.

After weeks of this, I confessed my nighttime rendezvouses to my friend, Sharlene, over lunchtime salads.

“Do you think this is abnormal? Is there something wrong with me?”

Sharlene assured me she thought my mental state was intact. Thank you, friend! So, sure enough, that night I returned to Zepp’s 2007 reunion concert at London’s 02 Arena (somehow, I was comforted by the older age of the band as it was in keeping with mine). I had seen this performance how many times now? But watching Page’s fingers running up and down the frets of his guitar during “Ramble On” never grew old. The power of the sound reverberated right through me.

Still a creeping sense of guilt tugged at the back of my mind.

A few days later, I called a good buddy who also happens to be a practicing psychiatrist.

“There is something clearly wrong with me.”

“Why do you think that?”

“Because I’m obsessed with a band from the 1970s. It’s like I’m a teenager or something.”

“Well,” Joanie asked, “Do you enjoy the music?”


“Good. Then don’t worry about it.”

I had a shrink’s blessing. I resumed my fandom.

Today, sitting in a hospital chair, fluids and magnesium dripping into my veins, it has dawned on me that I’ve been in a type of mourning. Not so much for the loss of my breast, though that hasn’t been easy, but for the young woman (still a girl, really) I was as the 70s era faded. It wasn’t really the beauty of a young Robert Plant that I longed for when I watched those early concerts; it’s the beauty that I was.

I miss her.

I’ve missed her shiny, sleek hair, how lithe she was on those first few steps of her near daily run, her wide, wondering eyes in the mirror, her slim frame, often eager mind, and her ability to experience life fresh of too many disappointments. And oh, that magical thinking, when young was something you would always be and one year stretched on forever.

One year races by now. And everything is measured in time, appointments and deadlines. “Today, tomorrow, yesterday.” I don’t think about time when I watch those old Led Zeppelin concerts. It doesn’t exist.

After a year off from running, I received the “all clear” to resume the sport again. So this evening, I’ll lace up my shoes and take this aging, cancer-recovering body out for the first of what I hope will be many more runs. And I’ll reconnect with that young woman whom I’ve realized remains inside, but just in case it’s hard to find her, I’ll turn on my iPod Shuffle and press play to “Ramble On.”


Mashed potatoes and dumplings

Do you remember your most embarrassing moment? For years I thought nothing beat the time in sixth grade when I tripped over a fan, falling into a cubby hole cabinet and sending all of its contents flying. And over the years, I’ve logged in a few other “moments.” But as I’ve aged, I’ve experienced far less of those times when I wanted the ground to swallow me whole. Aging has taught me there are worse things than tripping on proverbial banana peels. But all that changed on the day of the test.

I was back at Dr. Phartz’s office. Feeling miserable from a new yet chronic stomach ailment, I needed relief.  I was lucky. Dr. Phartz was not only in a good mood that day, but downright compassionate, even showing his sensitive side. Of course, later on, I understood why.

“Pat, you need to have this test.” Dr. Phartz wrote down the name of the procedure on a sheet of paper and slid it across his desk in my direction.

“I’ve never heard of this. Does it hurt?”

“No, it doesn’t hurt but…it’s very embarrassing.”

I’d undergone a variety of GI tests through the years and gotten past the indignities. I just wanted to feel better. However, after listening to Dr. Phartz and doing some online research, I admit I was nervous. But the procedure was conducted in a hospital setting, and I was assured, with the utmost privacy. How bad could it be?


Examination day. My husband and I travel an hour out of town because apparently only one hospital in our fair city performs the test. After the usual checking in, I bid my hubby farewell as Maria, a lovely, dark haired young lab assistant, leads me to a dressing room.

“Now, honey, just take everything off and put your belongings in this locker.” She hands me a gown. “I don’t need to tell you to leave the belt untied,” she winks. I like her. Maybe this won’t be too uncomfortable.

After my wardrobe change, Maria ushers me into a dimly lit yet high tech x-ray room. But the lighting isn’t the first thing I notice. PerfectMashedPotatoes

“It smells like mashed potatoes in here,” I say.

“It does,” Maria agrees. “I cook up a batch of instant every morning.”       

In the x-ray lab? That’s a new one on me.

Maria emerges from a tiny office adjoining the lab. She’s holding what appears to be a turkey baster.

“What’s that?” I ask but I have a feeling I know the answer.

“These are the mashed potatoes I made but I’ve mixed barium into them. Gotta light you  up!”

Dear God. So much for comfort food.

Maria instructs me to climb up onto the x-ray table and assume the fetal position. And then, yes, she really does “insert” the mashed potatoes where the sun don’t Belk.jpg bastershine.

“Okay,” Maria shouts. “Climb down, now! Let’s go!”

I’m so startled out of my carb-induced shock that I practically break my neck getting down from the table.

“We must run over and take a seat so you can eliminate quickly!”        

I’d read about this part. Maria is about to take me into a private room with a toilet and a doctor in another lab will watch the, uh, process on a monitor. But that doesn’t happen. Oh, no, it does not.

Maria stands at the end of the x-ray table, flips some sort of lever and a funny looking chair, one that looks a lot like a rigged-up commode, descends. Once it’s in place, Maria wraps a large, black plastic bag over the, uh, bucket and commands me to sit.

“Now, hold it! The doctor will be in in a minute.”

Huh? The doctor is coming in here? Where’s my private room? Oh, God.

“Don’t worry. The doctor will be watching from over there.” Maria points to a television monitor that’s attached to a zip-line on the opposite end of the lab. “Now just try to relax, but not too much!”

Relax? She’s got to be kidding!

“Ah, here comes the doctor,” Maria nearly shouts.

And just when I think things can’t get much worse, in walks not the brisk, efficient woman nor the kindly, elderly gentleman I’d imagined, but Orlando Bloom. Or Jonathan Rhys Meyers. Take your pick of hot young actors. The doctor is not only male but friggin’ gorgeous and I am absolutely mortified.

Nodding in my direction, Dr. Bloom Meyers, aka, Dr. B.M., strides across the room, switches on the monitor, makes some adjustments, then drags the pulley until he and the monitor are right next to me.

“Okay,” B.M. says. “Go ahead.”

This can’t be happening. My worst nightmares were never this bad. Colin Firth or whatever this doctor’s name is wants me to defecate right in front of him.

“Go on, honey,” Maria assures. “We won’t look.”

Oh, gee. That makes me feel so much better. Doc B.M. is only standing five feet from me but he and Maria won’t look. What a relief.

Somehow (disassociation?), I got through it. However, let me tell you, I’ve had to do a lot of unpleasant things in my life but taking a dump in front of a handsome doctor has got to be right up there at the top of the list. Number Two equals Number One, if you get my drift.


It took a while before I recovered from the mortification of what is now my “most embarrassing experience of all time.” I don’t think about it often but one thing’s for sure: when my husband and I go out to dinner, I pass on the mashed potatoes.

*For the curious, the exam I underwent is called a Defecography. The results were normal but I’ve never been the same.

Song for a friend

lonely sea


I thought you were someone                                                                                      

I guess that you’re not.       

I got a lot less

than I thought

than I thought.

Should have known next time

meant never.


Those things that you said

which ones did you mean?

Seems me we don’t speak the same language.

Did we ever?

Should have known next time

meant never.


Found myself looking for a letter

One that will never arrive.

It’ really doesn’t matter, anyway,

I deleted your address from my hard drive.

I should have known next time

meant never.

Should have known it meant

not ever.


I’ve wrapped up my love

and put it away

So if I say stay

I mean never.

Should have known your heart

much better

that next time means

not ever.

Yes, I am a heavy runner

I’ve heard them all. All of the insinuations that I either don’t exercise enough or am not capable of running very far or fast because of my weight. These “insightful comments,” are much too good to keep to myself so let’s take a look at a few of them, shall we?

~I’m trying out a new podiatrist who can hopefully figure out why my right foot is plagued with chronic pain. After spending approximately 1.3 minutes with me, Dr. Heel informs me that, “let’s face it. When we live in a great country like ours, we grow up hearing we can do anything we want. That’s our wonderful American dream! But the reality is you’re just not built like a runner. There’s a reason runners are tall and thin. But you just don’t have the body type to run. I’m sorry.” Gee. I was sorry, too. Sorry I was going to have to keep looking for a decent podiatrist.*

     *Which by the way I found not only after Dr. Heel’s remarkable conclusions but his misdiagnosis of the problems plaguing my foot. My current competent doc put me in a proper pair of orthotics and my foot ailments are now kept to a minimum.

~A friend and I are appraising my front yard, trying to figure out why my recently planted magnolia tree looks shrunken and miserable. The possible solution? Tilling the soil because, after all, the work “will be good for your arms. It will tone them up and make them strong.” Hmmm. Guess the weight training at the gym must not be doing the job.

~”Patti, are you still running” asks Kathleen, the traffic coordinator at one of the multitude of radio stations where I worked over the years. “Yep, every other day.” “Doesn’t look like it,” snarks Ken Cruz, the afternoon DJ, passing us on his way to the on-air studio. Funny guy.

~”Oh, it’s so good to see you,” says Terri as she arrives at my house for dinner. “I brought the perfect appetizer for you. It’s very low calorie.”

Then there are the looks of  shock and surprise I’ve gotten through the years when I’ve shared with various people that I’m a runner. “I never would have guessed that,” is also common response. Okay, so I’m not thin nor, at this point in my life, even on the slender side. I’m not thrilled about this. I try to count calories, watch what I eat, etc. But it’s harder to lose weight as I’ve gotten older (fact not excuse) and my body will take whatever opportunity it can to hang onto the “f” word.

So, yeah, I’m a heavy runner. But I run. I’ve run one marathon, a handful of half marathons, and I’ve lost count of the 5ks. I train with a fabulous  group of runners several times a week. They’re like family to me and not one of them would ever think to make a crack about the extra weight I’m carrying. As runners, they know their bodies and they would never presume that I don’t know mine. We’re out there, running the streets together. All body types, shapes and sizes. Are most of them thinner than I? Yes. And maybe someday my weight will match theirs again. But even if it never does, I’ll see them on the road.

And they’ll see me.

finishing the race

Lift off

Flight Chagall

“The night-time shadows disappear 
and with them go all your tears…”

~Marsden – Marsden – Chadwick – Maguire

Another drop

Rainy Day



Sky gray

A swathe of wool

covers this day.

Yet each hour

is for keeping

and for listening

to the rain.

Time will seek

its certain passage

when memory



and like the wool,

slips away.


Morning Poem

Staircase in Capri


Untie the package of this day

with gentle hands

for what’s inside may bite

or sting,

refuse to bend.

But if you find its contents sweet,

savor what you can

and take its fragrant memory

as you travel into night.