3. “Feeling ready” – Checkup no. 1

Have you ever asked yourself why some endings feel more like beginnings and vice versa?


A special gift

On the morning of June 1, 2021, I sent an e-mail attachment to 45 people all over the world, and for good reason. They had all contributed to my transformative medical journey in one way or another, for which I was most grateful.

After reading “A special gift from Barb for you – her book!” in the subject line, the following message awaited each wonderful and highly valued recipient:

You are receiving a pre-published version of my story of personal transformation because you are special to me and supported me throughout my journey back to health.

The attached PDF is for your eyes only. Thank you for not sharing it with others (unless you have already asked me, and I said yes!).

I wrote this book with three goals in mind: to educate, to entertain, and to raise funds for cancer research.

To that end, I will be making a donation to the Cancer Foundation of Saskatchewan and invite you to join me. To find out more, visit their website, https://cancerfoundationsask.ca/donate/.

Alternatively, you could support a charity of your own choice.

Thank you and enjoy!


Feeling once again exhausted yet proud of myself – the epitome of an accomplished woman? – I ate a radiation-therapy approved meal for lunch (as in rice, butternut squash, and grilled chicken.)

Then I walked down the street to my pharmacy.

My “second shot” vaccine appointment turned out to be a quick and painless affair. Since I felt like celebrating, albeit by myself, I bought four different chocolate bars, one for each of my “inner crew members”. (The small corner store that housed the pharmacy was unfortunately out of Nutella.)

The first two sweet treats were consumed when I arrived home. They made me feel sick to my stomach, but I was certain that, too, would pass (and it did.)

The other two pieces of candy helped me “cope” with a somewhat sore arm the next day. (At least, that was “the story I was telling myself,” to quote fellow academic Brené Brown.)


Bloody hell

To my absolute dismay, I woke up very early the next morning with major bloating (“Why do I feel like I have gained 20 pounds overnight?”).

After using the vaginal stretching device – it was a Wednesday, after all – I had gone to the washroom to relieve myself. That’s when I realized that I had a discharge of blood overnight, about a teaspoon full.

“Don’t panic,” said my main guide and suggested I go for a walk.

“Good idea.” (In hindsight, I should have probably stayed put.)

View of downtown Regina

It was a beautiful, sunny morning, so I put on some sunscreen, donned a hat, and grabbed my walking poles. Then I climbed all the way to the top of (the one and only) hill in an otherwise flat prairie town and enjoyed the gorgeous views.

When I returned an hour and a half later, I saw more blood. Worse, I now felt like my vagina was burning up on the inside.

This nasty symptom had been troubling me ever since my third round of chemotherapy. Sitz baths brought some relief but, in general, I just toughed it out.

Of course, my inner MD had already begun working out a diagnosis. She blamed my less than stellar diet since hearing the magic “all clear, Barb” words at my follow-up appointment a week ago.

Okay, so I had downed a two-litre bottle of Coke Zero over the weekend. But it was on sale, and I had not been allowed to have any fizzy drinks between late January and mid-April (as not to aggravate my bladder any more than necessary during radiation therapy treatments.) To my disappointment, if not dismay, my taste buds still found the dark brown liquid unappealing.

And, yes, I had committed another “food sin” after being vaccinated for the second time. But “real” peanut butter and chocolate ice cream tasted so much better than the lactose-free variety that my bowels preferred.

In other words: I had let myself go food-wise and was evidently now paying the price.

That’s when “Barb 2.0” whispered something important into my (left) ear. “Healing involves setbacks.”

I let out a big sigh in agreement and finally dialed the number of the cancer clinic to tell the receptionist what was going on.

It took several hours for me to get some answers.

“It’s likely got something to do with the stretching device,” my favourite oncology nurse concluded. “It probably irritated the vagina.”

Maybe I should suspend my dreaded “pelvic homework” for a while, I suggested.

“No, keep doing it, and watch the symptoms, including the bloating, Barb,” I was told. The nurse also wanted me to report back after a week had passed. If that kind medical oncologist wanted to see me again, I would get a phone call.

“Keep us posted, too,” said my twin sister and my trusted neighbour.

The latter then provided me with some honest feedback on my “special gift” book manuscript. After all, my “Regina mom” was one of the major “characters” in it.

“I was surprised that you intentionally left out all the parts when I was ‘a bitch’” (her words, not mine.)

“You never were,” I was quick to reply with a big grin on my face.

If anything, she was blunt to a fault. Most importantly, she knew instinctively how to keep this stubborn German girl on the straight and narrow.

“For someone with a Ph.D., you can be pretty stupid, Barb.” (No comment.)

After resting for an hour – it had been an emotional morning – I sent an e-mail to a representative of the Cancer Foundation of Saskatchewan (CFSK). My trusted neighbour, whose husband had died from cancer many years ago, had recommended I tell her about my publication plans for the book.

The representative was very touched by my story and thrilled when I told her about my intention to donate proceeds from my memoir-textbook to cancer research.

“It will take a while for my book to appear in print, though,” I explained. “It all depends on the publisher and their staff availability.”

For now, I would show my appreciation to the medical staff who looked after me during my treatments by making a substantial donation right away, to be used for cancer research.

“That is most generous of you,” she said. “Would you like to use the Proud Supporter of CFSK logo in your book?”

“I would be honoured.”

After signing some paperwork, I forwarded a copy of the “A special gift from Barb – her book!” e-mail to the CFSK representative, PDF attached. It would be good to get comments from people who did not know me personally.

So far, most of my “invited readers” seemed to like my recollections (“I was expecting to cry, yet you made me laugh out loud, Barb.”)

Interestingly, more than one reader had questioned my “privacy clause,” as in my decision against using real (or fake) names. As I have tried to explain earlier, it is my call to make, and mine alone.

What was the most surprising comment I received on my manuscript, you ask? “I was hoping for more dark parts in your book.”

When I consulted with my inner optimist, aka “Barb 2.0”, about that unexpected reaction – my goal as a writer had been to entertain and educate – she promptly referred me back to the Table of Contents in Perfect Timing.

Chapter titles like “Could it [that is, the cancer] be back?” as well as subheadings such as “My life is a sob story” and “Freaking out” arguably would provide ample fodder for discussion regarding the more challenging parts of my cancer journey, my health guide argued.

In hindsight, I realized the deeper meaning of “I was hoping for more dark parts in your book.”

Unlike my own experiences, that person’s health journey continued to be “riddled with darkness and lacked light” (my words, not hers.)

If you guessed that this individual was my best friend, you are right.

Unlike me, she was still very much coping with a Stage 4 cancer diagnosis, while I was already on my way to recovery.


Confession time

The next day, my beloved caretaker reminded me that I still needed to clear out my old storage unit and put everything into my new, much smaller one. The new tenant had asked about it.

It had not taken us long to move the entire contents over (or, more precisely, up) from the basement.

My new locker was located on the first floor near the building’s rear exit, and the size of a tall and deep cupboard. It now accommodated my “summer stuff” (think picnic blankets) and “winter stuff” (think fake Christmas tree and old winter boots.)

“Thanks for your assistance,” I told the caretaker.

“You are very welcome, sunshine,” was his happy reply.

As always, this form of endearment made me smile.

A fellow cancer survivor, this gentleman was one of the most chilled people I had ever met. He had also bent over backwards to help me move into my new apartment between chemo- and radiation therapy treatments and during a pandemic. Enough said.

“If you need anything before you leave town, Barb, just shoot me a text,” he said and walked away from me while answering his phone.

The next couple of weeks would indeed be busy ones.

To that end, “Dr. Barb” had begun drawing up two important lists called “home” and “office” respectively. She was an expert organizer, if I may say so myself, and put together an inventory of what should go into my two checked pieces of luggage.

Since I would return in late August for my next follow-up appointment, I could concentrate on seasonal wardrobe and certain “must have” items.

Miau (Meow)!

The latter included: special gifts such as a coat rack that looked like a music staff with notes; travel mementos, specifically cat figurines from Germany; a “polar tropic” pillow (I had an extra one, and it has been a life saver when hot flashes hit); and at least three pairs of hand-knitted socks because they help me fall asleep faster.

My biggest pre-trip purchases were a new platform bed and a “mattress in a box” which I had ordered from a local specialty store in Regina. It had a branch in Victoria, and both items would be delivered to my new abode shortly after my arrival.

A long-time and always helpful friend who was also a fellow IBS sufferer had come up with this brilliant idea (“You are welcome.”)

“Barb 2.0” was similarly impressed and emphasized incessantly that resting, especially in one’s own bed, promoted healing.

This brings to me a confession of sorts which I had not disclosed in Perfect Timing, even though it had occupied my “chemo brain” on good days and especially on bad ones.

No, I had not secretly fallen in and/or out of love. And, sadly, there had also not been any unforeseen inheritances, lawsuit settlements, or salary bonuses.

My very own skeleton in the closet was the piece of real estate in Victoria that I was going to call my home for the next 15 months – because it was my home!

The idea of buying something out west and renting it out until I was ready to retire was not new. In fact, I had been saving for a down payment of sorts for years.

But house prices in the capital of British Columbia were among the highest in Canada, thanks to its mild climate and the appeal of island living.

What about purchasing an older, newly renovated place? That was not an option for me: I wanted the vibes of my place to be clean as in “not soiled” (for lack of a better term) by previous owners and/or tenants.

It also needed to be near my sister’s house. Ideally, I wanted to be able to walk or bike over from my place to hers, regardless of the weather.

“Good luck with finding something that’s new and affordable,” my twin sister had said when – after experiencing a 24-hour midlife crisis of sorts – I had put together a lengthy “real estate wish list” in late 2018.

“I am going to ask the universe for help,” I announced, sounding hopeful.

Within two weeks (!), my retirement plans as far as accommodation were concerned suddenly began to manifest.

A brand-new condominium building was going to go up in my twin sister’s neighbourhood!

A quick look at the developer’s website made me e-mail my financial advisor within minutes. Was the asking price within my range, and if yes, how fast could I get pre-approved for a mortgage?

After being told “Go ahead, Barb,” I made an appointment to tour the show suite before Christmas. (I was going to spend the holidays with my twin sister and her family.)

Long story short: on January 16, 2019, I made a down-payment on my first home ever. According to the builder, my one-bedroom apartment was going to be move-in ready in fall 2020.

“I am convinced that my late mother had something to do with this turn of events,” I said to my pastor-friend. I had called her to share my exciting news.

“Your mom – how so?”

“I realized when I signed the papers at the bank today, that it is also the 34th anniversary of her death.”

Her sudden passing in early 1985 had been the impetus for my twin and I to begin a new life in Canada a year and a half later, after finishing high school.

“She would have been so proud of you, Barb.”

I agreed wholeheartedly – and then wondered whether my mother had perhaps also somehow managed to delay my fourth round of chemotherapy in late November 2020. It had really upset me at the time but, in hindsight, had turned out to be a blessing in disguise.

“I will be e-mailing you the final condo paperwork the week of November 30,” the paralegal had said. “We need it back by December 4 at the very latest.”

“The timing of this request couldn’t be worse,” I pointed out to my sister in Germany, visibly worried.

The cancer clinic was expecting me on November 27.

By now, I knew what that meant: I was likely going to feel okay on the weekend thanks to medication, but crappy for several days afterwards.

Specifically, I was concerned about cognitive problems (“chemo brain”) that had been frustrating “Dr. Barb” for weeks now (“Why can’t I think straight?”).

“Sorry, but your white blood count is not high enough to have a chemo treatment the day after tomorrow, Barb,” my favourite medical oncology nurse had said on the phone.

“Are you sure?” I was stunned.

There had never been a problem before. Maybe the lab had made a mistake?

My blood count was checked between 48 and 24 hours prior to each scheduled appointment. (In pre-pandemic times, cancer patients would be tested weekly.)

“It’s not your fault,” my GP emphasized.

He had called after reviewing the lab results and emphasized that my body now needed more time to recuperate. I was told to rest and relax for an extra seven days.

They turned out to be a godsend.

Instead of being extremely fatigued (“Why can I not open my eyes?”) and coping with awful joint pain (“My knees are on fire!”), I had the energy to comb through what felt like 100 binding legal documents.

A former colleague also told me about using a notary public instead of a lawyer to have my signature certified (“It’s much cheaper.”) Imagine my delight when Dr. Google located one just down the street from me!

That week, I also had a beautiful dream about my new home out west. I was standing in front of a big window, admiring blooming flower beds in my neighbour’s garden across the street.

From then on, whenever I needed a break from reality (“How many more rounds of chemo are left?”), I would catapult myself onto my imaginary condo balcony.

The sun was always shining, and my inner child loved playing ball with my male guide while I was busy inside, furnishing the place.

In other words: life was perfect, albeit only in my head.


Energy plans

“How is the packing going?”


Before I could answer my twin sister, there was a big noise and huge sparks flying about. They were coming from the – now blackened – socket into which my air-conditioning unit had been plugged.

“Thanks for taking a look right away,” I said to my caretaker. He had knocked on my door shortly after I had texted him about the incident.

“You are very welcome, sunshine.”

“The unit wasn’t even on when it happened, you know.”

Dr. Google had already informed me that overheating was one of the main causes of AC units malfunctioning.

My caretaker was also clearly puzzled.

“This should never have happened – I am glad that you were home when it did, Barb.”


“It could have caught on fire.”

After installing a brand-new AC unit a couple of days later, my caretaker offered the “only plausible” explanation. The previous tenant – who had moved out during the summer months – must have rigged it (“He was a mechanic.”) Now my first utility bill finally made sense.

It had been based on his energy consumption; that’s what the SaskPower customer representative had said when I called. It was also three times as much (!) as what I had paid on average for my previous (bigger) apartment three floors down.

As a result, I was advised to submit monthly meter readings online for at least a year as it would fix the billing issues (“Fine.”)

In hindsight, I realized that this potentially scary incident presented an unexpectedly accurate snapshot of my life before I was diagnosed with cancer and what happened afterwards.

As an extrovert and non-partnered individual, I loved to be busy.

Consequently, I had signed up for the “unlimited energy plan.” I had been able “to afford” it because my “inner body mechanic” had figured out how to deal with stress – more or less (“rigged it.”)

The “big noise” was the sudden cancer diagnosis requiring immediate surgery, while the unexpected “sparks” and the “blackened” plug socket depicted the shape my body was in after six months of treatments.

The fact that I had “been home,” that the unit was “not turned on,” and that there had been “no fire” was a minor miracle.

This dramatic turn of events aligned with my efforts as a patient and those of my wonderful medical team: together, we had prevented a much worse outcome (“You have only months to live.”)

What about the “new unit”?

That role was now portrayed by “Barb 2.0”, and the “meter readings” referred to my ongoing healing journey.

In other words, my job as a cancer survivor was to choose the correct “energy plan” for my body, mind, and spirit for the rest of my life.

“Sounds like a tall order,” I said to my male guide.

“It is,” replied “Barb 2.0”.


Weeping episodes

“I have excellent news, Barb,” said my Greek friend and colleague on the phone.

Several days after the AC unit incident, we had gone for a lovely, chatty walk around the lake near my house.

“I have made it to the ‘five years in remission’ mark!” She was smiling.

“Congratulations!” I was smiling even more. “What awesome news!”

This milestone meant that her Saskatchewan cancer patient ID number – I had memorized mine early on as one needed to “recite” it when calling – would now be retired permanently from the cancer clinic’s records (who knew?).

My pastor-friend in Alberta would soon celebrate the exact same anniversary. Hallelujah!

These two resilient fellow cancer survivors kept assuring me that I was going to bounce back eventually – because they had. Both were also confident that I was going to be stronger than ever in the end – because they were.

I, on the other hand, harboured serious doubts about ever feeling like my former invincible, pre-diagnosis self again. When would that change (if ever), I wondered?

Ever since booking my flight to Victoria in late May, I had also been shedding tears frequently for no apparent reason. I was going to join my beloved twin sister soon. Shouldn’t I be thrilled with joy?

To distract myself after a particularly awful “weeping episode,” I decided to drive to church and play the organ.

Physical engagement with my favourite instrument always lifted my mood. It was going to be fun to record some more “virtual organ music” for a Zoom worship during the summer. At least, that was the plan.

“Hi, Barb,” said my neighbour from across the hall on the seventh floor when I opened the door to the parking garage.

“If you were planning to go anywhere, don’t do it – everything is flooded outside!”

“What?” When I had looked outside my east-facing windows, all I had seen were a few big puddles.

“Don’t you watch TV? Over 65 millimetres of precipitation has fallen in the past 24 hours.”

A quick look on my phone confirmed her “rain on the plains” story.

Somewhat disappointed, I went back to my apartment. Within minutes, I was crying puddles again, as I was flooded with emotions.

“Why are you so sad?” My inner child was clearly worried about me. “Do you want a chocolate bar?”

I blew my nose in response, which made her laugh.

“I am really happy to leave town and let go of the bad memories,” she declared. I blew my nose again.

“This is my home,” I said quietly, wiping my eyes. “My life is here – and so are all my friends.”

“Would you rather not get on that plane?”

I had wondered when “Barb 2.0” was going to get involved.

“No … yes … I don’t know.”

“You are grieving your future, my dear,” she said gently.

“Maybe.” I got up to get a new box of tissues from my pantry. That’s where I also kept most of my junk food.

“Think of it this way,” she continued, while I started combing through some of the cupboards. Darn. No chocolate or chips anywhere!

“Please listen to me – this is important.”

Her tone was serious enough for me to stop what I was doing and lie down on my big blue couch in the living room.

“Your cancer journey is equivalent to a karmic course correction of sorts,” she explained.

That made sense, given that I was no longer the same person that I had been before my diagnosis.

“Over the next 15 months or so you will be able to heal previous generations worth of trauma, not just your own,” she continued.

That also made sense, given that I was the daughter of two World War II survivor parents.

“So, this is not all about me, then?” I asked, starting to understand what was going on.

Then “Barb 2.0” spelled it out for me: healing near, or precisely, alongside my twin sister, was the universe’s plan for me.

All I needed to do was to accept and then surrender to it.

In response to this potentially life-altering piece of information, I yawned loudly, being utterly exhausted.

An hour later, I woke up refreshed and happy, thanks to a much-needed nap.

“Enough with the tears,” I declared.

I was done mirroring the truly awful weather outside, I decided. It was now time to start living my new life, whatever that entailed.


Precious cargo   

“It’s so good to see you, Barb.”

I carefully opened the door of a beautifully restored truck and got in.

“Where is the seatbelt?”

The driver, a colleague who was on study leave, smiled. I had expected him to pick me up with his snazzy SUV.

“They didn’t have seatbelts then.”

Right, like in one of my favourite American shows that I watched as a kid on German television, The Waltons.

“Seriously?” I always buckled up.

“I am going to drive very slowly, Barb – you are precious cargo!”

When we got to his house, we switched to his beloved Harley Davidson. We were going to take it for a spin this morning; I had been looking forward to this outing all week.

The weather was perfect, and by now I knew how to dress properly.

Several years ago, when I had climbed on the passenger seat for the first time, I had worn capri pants and promptly burned the inside of my right calf on the dismount.

It took months for it to heal; putting Vitamin E oil on my lower leg, as suggested by my colleague’s concerned spouse, had made a real difference.

After putting on a helmet (which made me feel like Darth Vader) and getting on the back of the Harley Davidson (which made me think of a Star Wars speeder bike), we carefully navigated our way through city traffic.

“Ready for some serious speed, Barb?”

We were finally going to exit onto the Trans-Canada Highway. Our destination was the gift shop of our local Harley Davidson dealer.

“You bet!” I said, adjusting my sunglasses so they would not fly off inadvertently. “Let the fun begin!”

An hour later, I was back home safely and the proud new owner of a blue Harley Davidson t-shirt with some lovely bling. My pre-pandemic self would not have been caught dead wearing such a garment.

“Barb 2.0”, however, had not only deemed the adventure ride “therapeutic,” but also enjoyed the shopping experience. It had been ages that someone had purchased a piece of clothing for me!

“It looks lovely on you,” my trusted neighbour said when I showed the new garment off to her.

“I know,” I answered. “That’s because it is made from special healing vibes.”


Impact is everything

The very next day “Dr. Barb” decided that it was time to draw up a list of office items that she felt she could not be without in her “other home” (to quote my butler-nurse friend) in Victoria.

The last time this had happened, the moving company I had hired to help me relocate from the West Coast to the prairies retrieved nearly 50 boxes filled (mostly) with printed books from my apartment.

For the record, producing electronic copies of my most prized scholarly possessions had been a high priority on my “pandemic to-do-list.” Finally uploading them to the cloud ten months after my cancer diagnosis made my inner scholar feel incredibly productive, to say the least.

They included literally hundreds of pages of primary source materials that I had collected over the years during my research trips to Germany.

If you can read this, congratulations!

For your viewing pleasure, I have included a page from a letter penned in 1737 by my favourite German Kapellmeister. Neat, eh?

The scanning process itself took no elbow grease, just a lot of time. I had also not expected to stand at the photocopying machine and watch it do its job to be so tiresome, if not dull.

“Barb 2.0” promptly started fretting.

“I know you have missed work but doing too much too soon will backfire – trust me on that,” my health guide said.

“You are wrong,” stated a confident “Dr. Barb”.

Her scholarly heart had been bleeding when she was forced to step away from her professorial duties after surgery. She couldn’t wait to go back and pick up where she had left off!

“Ladies, stop arguing,” interrupted my main guide, and for good reason. I had promised to drop off a printed copy of Perfect Timing at my English instructor-colleague’s place that afternoon.

After being offered a cold beverage (“Water would be great”), I took a seat on his lovely patio deck.

A short while later, I began playing with Morse, one of his pets, who had joined us outside.

Find me if you can!

Can you spot him in this picture, taken by his human dad?

Morse promptly purred when I said that, in my humble opinion, he was so handsome that he “belonged on a cat calendar.” My instructor-colleague smiled.

“You should have your manuscript professionally assessed by someone from the Saskatchewan Writers’ Guild, Barb,” he suggested.

I wondered whether their peer-review-like comments would be kind or nasty – or both.

In fact, “Dr. Barb” was preparing for the worst (“This book manuscript sucks, and so do you”). This, in turn, frustrated my main guide (“Does it really matter?”).

“Thanks for helping me with this,” I said to my instructor-colleague. “I’ve prepared a slew of questions for the reviewers and even brought a cheque as requested on the website.”

“Just leave it all to me, Barb.” He sounded confident. “I will think about publishers to approach about your memoir once you have completed a final version.”

It turned out, however, that the Writers’ Guild’s manuscript evaluation service had been suspended temporarily because of the pandemic.

“It’s a sign,” I thought.

Seeing one’s name on the cover of a hardcover or paperback book is “cool,” as my students would say.

But in my cancer-survivor heart, I cared way more about getting my manuscript published without delay and, ideally, at no cost to the reader.

To my delight, my post-secondary institution had recently begun to encourage instructors to create so-called “open educational resources” on an open access platform. To that end, authors had to learn how to use a publishing software, but they maintained complete control over every step, including setting their own deadlines.

My inner academic liked that aspect very much. But what about my plan to donate the proceeds from the sale of my book to cancer research?

Thinking back to the night in late February 2021 when I was given a “special task” by the universe – to write down my cancer story – I realized something important.

Giving back was not tied to currency. It was tied to effort.

Since my energy battery was recharging at a snail’s pace these days, however, it would be anyone’s guess as to how long it would take me to get my book published online.

Undeterred by my “scholarly ego” who was busy sulking, I made a solemn promise to myself and the universe.

I would do my very best to share my health journey as fast as possible with as many people as possible.

I could swear my late mother was smiling at me when I made that pledge.


You get used to it

“I have had a busy weekend,” I said to my best friend a couple of days later.

To my great joy and delight, she had been visiting regularly since her birthday in early May. I would always give her a big hug upon arrival, offer her a cup of tea, and then invite her to sit down on my blue love seat and make herself at home.

I had a lot to tell her.

Four (!) former students had contacted me in June, their proud “teacher mama”, within days of each other and seemingly out of the blue. They were all stunned to hear about my recent health crisis.

One of them was a fellow cancer survivor with a fascinating story of his own.

He had been diagnosed with leukemia after finishing his undergraduate degree. Thanks to a bone marrow transplant that had come all the way from the United States, he had miraculously recovered and been in remission ever since.

“I need to have regular checkups for the rest of my life,” he pointed out.

“Are you quite anxious whenever that happens?” I wondered.

I was not looking forward to my follow-up appointments. They were all going to be nail-biters, as far as I was concerned.

“You get used to it, Barb.”

It took me several months to understand how, and why, he could be so calm about it.

In mid-September 2021, the German author Nicole Staudinger was featured on “Stilles Örtchen” (German for “quiet little place,” referring to the privy or loo.)

I had got hooked on this popular German talk show on Instagram and YouTube in early April. It was hosted by a well-known German actor, Elena Uhlig, who had interviewed one of my favourite German TV stars with a Canadian passport, Katerina Jacob.

These two funny ladies had made me laugh for 60 minutes straight – while I was sitting in my very own “Stilles Örtchen,” desperately trying to overcome awful bouts of radiation-therapy-induced diarrhea!

Having never heard of Staudinger, I had no idea that she was a fellow cancer survivor.

After being diagnosed with breast cancer at age 32, she began writing about her experience while undergoing treatments. The title of her 2015 German bestseller – Brüste umständehalber abzugeben (which translates as Breasts to give away due to circumstances) – had made me laugh out loud.

Staudinger emphasized in her interview with Elena Uhlig that agonizing about the outcome before or on the way to a medical checkup was a real waste of time.

“My thoughts and worries will not make me healthy,” she said. “Therefore, I am no longer willing to be scared or get panicky.”

I realized that she was lightyears ahead of me, just like my former student. Would I ever feel like that on my way to the cancer clinic?

A couple of days later I had another “weeping episode,” much to my frustration.

“Thanks for nothing,” I said to “Barb 2.0”. Clearly, her “healing lecture” had not had the desired effect; something was still bothering me.

That’s when an enlightening movie clip from my distant past began playing in my head.

After finishing my doctoral degree in late 1996, I had accepted a post-doc position of sorts as a musicologist-administrator back in Germany, albeit nowhere close to where I had grown up.

“Dr. Barb” and my “scholarly ego” loved it. As a result, I slowly worked myself to death (“That’s what we came here for.”)

My inner child hated it. She was homesick for Canada, specifically her best friend, my twin sister’s inner child.

Torn between my head and my heart, I poisoned my already obese body with even more (German) junk food.

I also refused to step on a scale, in fear of dropping dead instantly from looking down at the display. “I took a peek once,” my inner child said years later. “The number had three digits and started with a 3.” Enough said.

In hindsight, I should have quit this (office) job after six months. Why? Because despite my impressive CV and publication list, I felt completely invisible, both on the outside and the inside (!).

Nevertheless, I stayed on for two and a half years. Why? Because I enjoyed spending quality time with my older sister and her family. They still lived in our parents’ home in Northern Bavaria, a four-hour train ride away.

Teaching night classes at a local community college (“Our English instructor is in the hospital; can you start on Tuesday, Barbara?”) also made a huge difference. Being back in the classroom made me realize that I desperately missed engaging with students – and admit that I no longer recognized myself in the mirror.

What had happened to my “inner optimist” who used to laugh and smile all the time, I wondered?

Looking back, I suspect I was suffering from high-functioning depression for at least a year and should have reached out for professional help.

Instead, I excelled in the binge-eating department for close to two years and much to my inner child’s delight (“There is always room for more German sweets.”)

My anxious twin sister finally insisted in late 1998 that I return home to Canada.

“If you don’t resign within the next six months,” she said, “I will hop on a plane and get you myself.”

“You don’t have enough money to do that,” I replied.

“Watch me,” she countered.

“You win,” sighed a tired “Dr. Barb”.

She had (for once?) stopped caring about my “scholarly ego” who was horrified, to say the least (“How am I going to explain this to Mr. Fasch?”).

This sojourn overseas was the darkest and most complicated period of my life after losing my mother at the beginning of grade 12. Will I detail it as part of this sequel? No.

My repeated attempts to cope with family illness and loss as a child, teenager, and young adult, deserve to be shared and reflected upon under separate cover. (Since everything still takes longer than anticipated these days, I thank you for your patience in advance.)

In any case, shortly after my permanent return to Canada in mid-1999, I went to see a therapist.

I will never forget what happened.

I cried for an entire hour after being asked just one simple question: Who are you?

My answer – “I have no idea” – and the two boxes worth of paper tissues I threw into the therapist’s garbage bin over the course of two hours had stunned me, if nothing else.

What was I going to do with the rest of my life?

An alarm on my phone suddenly brought me back to the present. It was a reminder to do my “pelvic homework,” of all things. After getting my paraphernalia ready, I went to lie down on my bed, set the timer to four minutes, and hit the start button on my phone.

Then I asked my grieving heart to tell me how this sad piece of Kopfkino from the distant past was related to my current “weeping episodes.”

“Just get to the point,” I requested, emotionally exhausted. “I cannot handle any lengthy rationales today.”

My main guide then delivered the following message to my “inner crew” members:

Your masterfully constructed, multi-faceted past self is – once again – slowly dissolving, if not disappearing.”

“Wow,” I thought. No wonder I was shedding tears as a result!

“It’s called ‘transformation’ for a reason,” my best friend observed perceptively.

I had shared the above (mind-boggling?) realization with her during our final visit before my departure for the West Coast.

“Truth be told, I feel like my inner identity is stuck in a karmic spin cycle of sorts.”

“Then press the stop button, Barb.”

We both knew that this was easier said than done.


Final countdown

“I feel so much better,” I said after looking at myself in the mirror. “Let’s take a selfie right now.”

Where was I? At my favourite hair salon for the first time in 2021, of course.

After an emotional arrival, I had sat down on “my” swivel chair and pulled up a picture of Jamie Lee Curtis on my phone.

“Can you make me look like that?” I asked.

I loved how this actor had embraced her natural hair colour with a lovely pixie cut.

“I’ll do my very best,” my trusted hairdresser promised and went about her business.

Since this was quite a departure from my pre-pandemic chin-length hairdo, I felt compelled to take another hard, long look at myself in the mirror after taking off the cape that had protected my clothing (and my soul?).

The reflective surface showed me a very different “version” of myself compared to one year ago.

Who is this?

“I don’t like what I see,” I concluded in record time, albeit it only in my head.

Hair – too white; texture – weird.

Cheeks – still too chubby.

Smile – not genuine (despite wearing a pre-surgery shade of lipstick.)

“Please stop,” whispered “Barb 2.0”. My health guide wanted me to examine what was going on inside of me instead.

“Talking about your feelings upon looking in the mirror was a good first step,” she clarified. “The rest, not so much.”

“Fair enough,” I thought.

Then I paid the bill and hugged my trusted hairdresser goodbye. Like me, she had tears in her eyes.

“You look amazing,” said a former doctoral student several hours later when I met him and his partner outside of my building.

I still remember calling him with my health news, feeling quite anxious.

“I am so sorry to have to step down from your doctoral committee at the last minute.” (I had just started going through the final version of his 300-page dissertation.)

He was now dropping off two original pieces of art as a thank you gesture for my ongoing support during his studies.

“These are stunning,” I said, petting his partner’s cute dog. Since they were moving east soon, we ended up swapping “what to take with you and what to leave behind” stories.

“Please keep in touch, Barb,” he said. “I’d really like to know how you are doing.”

“You bet. Safe travels!”

The very next day, I heard from my former hospital roommate via text. A fellow cancer survivor, she had been in touch regularly, even though we had only spent a couple of days together as neighbours on the Short Stay Ward.

“Enjoy your time, Barb, and stay well.”

“You, too – I’ll send pictures soon!”

I showed off the new artwork to my trusted neighbour that evening (“He’s very talented.”) She had come up to my apartment to go through the “other” list that I had prepared especially for her.

“Anything besides the usual?” she asked.

Don’t forget to water me!

“Not too much more,” I answered.

In pre-pandemic times, she had often looked after my place when I was gone for more than two weeks.

As per my request, she checked my mail once a week and watered my one and only plant, courtesy of my best friend, twice a month. She also ran the taps in my kitchen and washroom every three weeks.

Rides to and from the airport were also included in the “full package deal.” I had reciprocated as best I could, trying to guess her taste in gifts.

“If you could take a picture of my utility meter once a month so I could submit it online, that would be awesome.”

“No problem, Barb.”

“Would you be able to return my modem and TV box paraphernalia as well?”

I had already called the cable company about cancelling my service on the day of my departure.

“Sure, just leave it in a box.”

She was going to drop it off after taking me to the airport.

“You are the best, Mom!”

“I know, Barb.”

Smiling at each other, the two of us went down to the fifth floor to locate my utility meter. It was “hiding” in a giant hall closet on the fifth floor (who knew?).

Interestingly, my last evening at home in Regina was not spent in the company of my trusted neighbour or my best friend, but with my “TV couple” friends.

They had once again prepared a feast for me and laughed when I called it “our Last Supper”: grilled chicken, Brussels sprouts, carrots, and a yummy risotto were followed by a tasty trifle-like dessert.

I would miss our shared meals, meaningful talks, and amazing walks around the neighbourhood (“I’ll meet you at the corner, Barb.”)

Maybe they – and other friends and/or colleagues, some of whom had dropped by during my last week in town to say goodbye (“Remember, I’m only a text away”) – would come visit me out west sometime?

Before heading to bed that night, I dialed my best friend’s number to say goodbye.

“I’ll call you from the airport and from my new place.”

“That would be nice, Barb.”

I knew that she secretly worried about me turning into a “treulose Tomate” or “unfaithful tomato,” as we say in German.

But there was no way I was going to forget all about her.

How could I, given how much we had shared – including being diagnosed and treated for cancer at the same time?



“I cannot believe that I will see my twin sister today!” I said to my trusted neighbour, excited and weary at the same time.

We were on our way to the airport.

I will never forget my arrival on that very same date on June 22, 2002.

“I was young and beautiful at the time,” I told my MD friend in Newfoundland when she called in the morning to wish me safe travels.

“Let me guess,” she said knowingly. “Now, you are neither one, right?”

My carry-on backpack and two expertly packed suitcases were now safely stowed in the trunk of my trusted neighbour’s car.

My wallet, phone (which contained screenshots of my electronic boarding passes), and keys were waiting to be retrieved from my cross-body travel purse when going through airport security.

In hindsight, the “Do I have everything?” ritual prior to getting into my neighbour’s vehicle had felt familiar and strange at the same time.

The last time I had boarded an aircraft was on January 1, 2020. I had spent my Christmas holidays visiting my two sisters and their families on Vancouver Island and was heading back to the prairies.

“Are you anxious to get on the plane, Barb?” my trusted neighbour asked as she stopped at an intersection.

“Yes and no,” I replied. “The flight from the mainland to the island worries me – they use smaller planes.”

In other words, I was concerned about the aircraft being overcrowded, and for good reason. Both official Canadian airlines, Air Canada and WestJet, had decimated their number of flights due to ongoing travel restrictions.

In fact, I considered myself lucky that my flight schedule had not been changed at all or, worse, cancelled altogether.

“Look after yourself, Barb,” my trusted neighbour said as she pulled into the airport drop-off zone.

“I’ll send you a text when I get there, Mom.”

After taking my luggage out of the car, I hugged her tightly.

For the record, I was wearing not one, but two KN95 masks. Despite having been vaccinated for a second time exactly three weeks ago to the day (“Perfect timing,” my GP had said), my immune system was going to be compromised for a while.

I “couldn’t be careful enough,” to quote my microbiologist colleague-friend, a fellow German.

Fifteen minutes later, I called my chauffeur with an important request.

“Did you forget something, Barb?”

“On the contrary, Mom.”

As a seasoned traveller who even in pre-pandemic times would make do with carry-on only, even when going to Europe (capsule wardrobe, anyone?), I felt truly embarrassed.

Don’t leave home without me!

“Would you mind returning to the airport and picking something up for me?”

She laughed out loud when I told her what it was: a pair of thinning shears.

Of course, they should have gone into my checked bags which were already on the plane.

I was going to use them on myself for two reasons. For starters, it would be too expensive to fly out my trusted hairdresser (who had shown me how to use them at my last visit.)

Most importantly, I did not want to “look like a pony” (to quote “Dr. Barb”) when I returned to the prairies in late August for my next checkup.

“No problem, Barb,” my trusted neighbour answered and turned right around to go back to the airport.

To my relief, the first plane from Regina, SK, to Vancouver, B.C., was half empty; I had an entire row to myself. To pass the time “above the clouds,” I offered prayers of gratitude and meditated to calm down my “inner crew”. (It worked.)

To my horror, the second and much smaller plane from Vancouver to Victoria was filled to capacity. In fact, the rather stressed-sounding flight attendant offered “anyone who is uncomfortable joining us today” a seat on a later flight.

I decided to ignore her. There was no way (“in hell,” added my inner child) I was going to wait any longer than I absolutely had to join my twin sister.

Thirty minutes later, I hugged my sibling tightly. It had been so long!

“Let’s get you home,” she said when she pulled out of the airport parking lot.

But hadn’t I just left “home”?


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