Sunday, December 31, 2023

The better half of 2023

2023 has been a rough year for the world, from wars to extreme weather events. Yet for me, the latter half of the year has certainly been a better experience than the first. It's been such a relief to have a relatively clean bill of health. I know some women really struggle with anxiety in the aftermath of treatment, worrying about recurrence. That hasn't been my experience--perhaps because I've always been good at procrastination. I've been able to shove off worries to the future. Probably I'll be a mess when it's time for a follow-up scan, but until then, I've been able to throw myself headlong into enjoying adventures again.

View from the summit of Treble Cone. NZ did not have a great ski season this year, but I enjoyed the heck out of the mountain anyway. 

Revisiting Nugget Point in the Catlins

Walking a wintry beach near Toko Mouth

Glorious coastal sunrise

View of Lake Wanaka from Roys Peak

Mt. Alpha and the Skyline track

It's also been great to spend some quality time with family, starting with a trip back to the U.S. to see my mother and brother (plus meet my new sister-in-law for the first time, since I wasn't able to make my brother's wedding due to the pandemic). Boy, I could write an entire post about the weird reverse culture shock of visiting the U.S. after 4 years away. Suffice it to say that it was a surreal experience, and confirmed that there's not much I miss. But I do miss my family, so it was lovely to see them again after so long apart. 

Hiking with my brother near Harpers Ferry in West Virginia

The kiddo and I hanging out with my mom

My husband's mother, father, and sister came over from Australia to visit us, and that was wonderful too. 

Family dinner at a local restaurant

Best of all, I got to take my Aussie sister-in-law hiking in one of my favorite areas of New Zealand, Aoraki Mt. Cook National Park. No matter how many times I visit Aoraki, I can't get over the mountain's beauty.

Ideogram cloud over Aoraki

Aoraki at sunset

Nothing like the blue of a glacial lake

My sister-in-law on the trail to Red Tarns

We've also enjoyed plenty of family fun closer to home, in the local rivers and lakes.

Playing in Lake Hawea's waves on a windy day

Tubing on Lake Hawea

Bodyboarding in the Hawea River

A local guy built a surf wave machine on his farm, and holds occasional open sessions for the community. Now there's a good use of Kiwi ingenuity!

All this adventuring and playing outdoors does have one downside. I haven't been doing much writing. I've got the professional edit in hand for the Cara story, The White Serpent, and I just need to sit down and push through the last changes. I think maybe in a way I've been scared to finally finish it, because then I'll need to publish it, and after everything I went through to get out the third book in the original trilogy, I associate publishing with stress. The last thing I've wanted in these past months is anything stressful, I suppose! But I think it's time to push past that ambivalence and get this story out into the world, in case there's anyone who'll enjoy reading it. So that can be one goal for 2024.

I do have other goals. One big one has to do with my day job. I have said farewell to my role at Narrative Muse, after accepting an offer to be Head of Data Science for a new Research and Innovation Hub over at MetService, New Zealand's major weather forecaster. I hope to help them improve their forecasting with machine learning and AI, especially for extreme weather events. As the climate changes, New Zealand will be particularly vulnerable to heavy rainfall events and high winds, and it'll be vital to predict dangerous weather in time to save lives. Prediction here is pretty challenging due to limited data and convoluted topography, but it's a challenge I'm eager to tackle. (I still wish Narrative Muse the best, though! I loved my time there and I still 100% believe in what they're trying to do with content-based recommendation. They've got a great team and a good foundation, so I hope they'll be tremendously successful.) 

So yeah, I have lots of plans for 2024. But I'm also trying to embrace flexibility and resilience, because you never know how life will go. I do know that regardless, I want to savor the good things. The world may be a mess, but there is still love here, and kindness, and quiet moments in the sunshine. May we all enjoy as much as we can of those. 

Sunday, July 30, 2023

State of the Schafer: Starting a new chapter

More happy news to share! I am all done with treatment and have a clean bill of health. The results of the DCISionRT test done on my samples from surgery came back saying my risk of recurrence was very low and radiation would make no difference. Whew! That meant I got to avoid radiation, which was quite a relief. No more worries over risks of heart and lung damage, plus I didn't have to temporarily move to Dunedin or Christchurch. (Radiation has to be done every day for many days, and the nearest center is 4 hours away from where we live, so the logistics were a bit daunting.) 

Back when my initial biopsy was performed in February, the nurse assured me that "all this" would likely just be a "blip in your rearview mirror" by July. I don't know if blip is quite the right word, but I am definitely delighted to be done with everything medical and back to more or less normal life. 

First ski day of the season!

This isn't the only big milestone I'm celebrating. Last week, my husband and son and I all officially became citizens of Aotearoa New Zealand. Now I truly get to call New Zealand home! 

At the citizenship ceremony presided over by the local mayor, we came onto the stage in groups of 10 to receive our official citizenship certificates and a native plant. The ceremony invitation said we were encouraged to wear attire from our birth country. My Aussie husband joked he should wear an Akubra hat. Even so, he couldn't have outdone the Scottish guy in kilt and gumboots.

Happy new citizens!

All 100 new citizens celebrating together. 

I do retain my U.S. citizenship, as both NZ and the US are fine with dual citizenship. (The U.S does not care what oaths you might swear to other countries--you'll stay a U.S. citizen and continue paying U.S. taxes unless you pay big bucks to officially renounce. On the upside, staying a citizen also means you still get to vote in U.S. elections, which I certainly plan to do.) But I love New Zealand so much that I am delighted to be more than just a resident, now. I hope I can give plenty back to my new country. 

I'll never get over NZ's beauty

So! Onward to a new chapter of life, which hopefully will include a lot more writing as well as a return to fun mountain adventures. I've got edits in hand for the Cara story, The White Serpent--thanks to the ever-awesome Mazarkis Williams for the keen editorial eye. No major changes are needed, just some smaller fixes, so hopefully those won't take me too long.

And hey, in the meantime, if you're looking for something great to read, check out Martha Wells and Ursula Vernon (a.k.a. T. Kingfisher). They are both incredibly talented authors whose work I adore, and both are now facing their own battles with breast cancer (see here and here). 

Martha Wells's latest release Witch King was one of the books that kept me sane during the agonizing wait for my results after my 2nd surgery. If you love fantasy adventures with interwoven timelines, complex cultures, lots of magic, and great friendships, I highly recommend the read. Or if you're into SF and haven't yet tried her highly-acclaimed Murderbot series, you're definitely missing out. 

As for Ursula Vernon, when I was waiting for results on the DCISionRT test, I re-read The Wizard's Guide to Defensive Baking, because it had just the sort of wit and warmth and empathy that I needed. My absolute favorites of her work are probably Summer in Orcus (so imaginative!) and Swordheart (so funny!), but honestly, every one of her many, many novels are delightful. 

I want to do a longer post about more of the books that proved to be excellent and enjoyable distractions while I was in treatment, but between work, my final pass on The White Serpent, and my delight in returning to the mountains, I dare not make promises about finding time. We shall see...

Comet is as excited for a new chapter as I am

Tuesday, May 30, 2023

State of the Schafer: Celebrating good news

Got some very good news last week: the pathology report for the tissue excised in my 2nd surgery came back clean, no evidence of cancerous or abnormal cells. WHEW. It was such a relief, it honestly took a little while to sink in. It wasn't until many hours later that I shed a few happy tears. I think I've been so braced against the possibility of bad news, I had all the emotional walls up high and tight. 

But now I can relax a little. No more surgeries! Chemo officially off the table! That is very good news indeed. I may still need radiation treatment--my surgeon will be discussing my case at a tumor board meeting tomorrow, plus he'll have my cancerous tissue from the first surgery sent off to an overseas lab for a special test that examines the cell characteristics and estimates risk of recurrence with and without radiation. 

Most women who have excision/lumpectomy surgery do go for radiation, but in my case, the cancerous area was deep in my left breast, close to my chest wall, which means an increased risk of heart and lung damage from radiation treatment. So, I will need to weigh the risks: potential damage to heart and lungs vs. risk of cancer recurrence. Having a really good estimate of that recurrence risk will be a big help in deciding, so hooray for modern medicine. (The test my surgeon has ordered is an example of AI used for good, in fact. My personal risk based on my tissue characteristics will be estimated by a model trained for accuracy on medical datasets. Note the part about "trained for accuracy" opposed to "trained to sound like a human", like ChatGPT. There's a tremendous difference there.)  

So....still a bit of waiting and uncertainty to go, but with far less worry and stress. That's a win in my book! Especially because now I can start planning to get out in the mountains again. The recovery from the 2nd surgery has been faster and easier than the recovery from the first, so I'm raring to go. Even if I do have radiation, it wouldn't happen until a month or more from now, because they'd want the tissue to be completely healed from surgery. That means I've got 4-6 weeks with nothing medical planned, woo hoo! It's not quite ski season yet, but the mountains are still looking mighty fine. Time to enjoy them.

On the Mt Iron trail overlooking Wanaka

Lake Hawea, with Mt. Maude behind

Saturday, May 13, 2023

State of the Schafer: Back Under the Knife

This Wednesday I'll be having surgery again. Sadly, multiple surgeries aren't unusual for women diagnosed with pre-invasive breast cancer. Something like 25% of women having excision/lumpectomy surgery have to go back for a second time. Some ladies have to go back even more. Pre-invasive cancer is sneaky; it doesn't show up well on imagery, nor does the tissue look different to the naked eye. It takes a pathologist with a microscope to examine tissue at the cellular level and know if the margins are clean or not.  

My surgeon isn't happy with one of my margins. I too would like to minimize my chance of cancerous cells remaining and growing into something far more difficult to treat. So! Back into the operating room I go. I'm not thrilled about the prospect, but at least this time the surgeon only needs to take a little bit more, so it's a faster and less involved surgery. I'm hoping that means the healing will also be a bit faster, but on the other hand, the surgeon will be re-opening the original incision, which means re-injuring the half-healed tissue, so I'm not sure. 

I think the hardest part will be the wait for the new pathology report. It's possible that yet more DCIS (the pre-invasive cancer) could be found in the newly excised tissue, in which case, I might face yet another surgery, or even a mastectomy. I'm obviously hoping for the more happy outcome, in which the tissue is all clean and I'll be free to move on to the next phase of treatment, which involves decisions about radiation therapy. But until I get that pathology report, all the outcomes are still on the table, and that uncertainty is far harder than the actual surgery and recovery, at least for me. 

That said, the recovery is still kinda annoying. I was just starting to be able to hike and everything again! Oh well. I can still look at the pretty mountains, even if I have to wait a while longer to play in them. Some early snows have come to the high peaks, which always makes them extra beautiful (and makes me dream of skiing...fingers crossed I'll get some days in this winter.) 

Took these pics the other day while walking Comet. Winter is coming!

Anyway, once the surgery is done, I'm going to be looking for some great distractions to keep my mind off the waiting while I recover. Maybe I'll re-read Dunnett's Lymond series (my fav books of all time!), although those need a lot of concentration. Maybe I'll re-read some Diana Wynne Jones and Patricia McKillip. If anybody's got really fun absorbing books or shows to recommend, please get in touch. 

Sunday, April 30, 2023

State of the Schafer: On the Mend

Welp, my excision surgery for my stage 0 breast cancer was on the 19th, and I'm healing well. As of today, my energy has returned, the soreness is minimal, and I'm even able to sleep on that side again. (A huge help to me, as I'm the sort of sleeper who turns from side to side during the night. Post-surgery, that led to a lot of waking up going "Ow!", despite attempts to brace myself with pillows.) I was definitely glad I took two weeks off work, so I didn't have to worry about trying to be productive. I've spent my recovery time snuggling with my dog and reading and catching up on TV shows that friends have been telling me to watch. 

Comet's been great about keeping me company during recovery

The highlights of my TV binging would include Ted Lasso--which, yes, is as heartwarming as everyone says. I resisted until now because I didn't want to pay for yet another streaming service (and Apple, to boot, I am not fond of Apple in general). But I'm kinda glad I waited, because it means now I've got 3 seasons of Lasso to enjoy, hooray! Another favorite distraction has been the new show Rabbit Hole, which is kind of like a cracked-out mash-up of 24 and Person of Interest. Kiefer Sutherland stars, and you know, I can happily watch Kiefer play spy characters all day. Although, what I like best is that the show has way more of a sense of humor than I expected, and never takes itself too seriously. Good times.

Speaking of kind people, my awesome co-workers sent me flowers, and a gift card to a shop that imports American foods and snacks. Jiffy corn muffin mix and Kraft mac-n-cheese, here I come.

On the reading front, I turned to some old favorites: Dorothy Sayers's Peter Wimsey mystery novels. It's always fun to read the whole series in order and see the build-up to the masterpiece of character work that is Gaudy Night. I also re-read Rachel Aaron's urban fantasy Heartstriker series, I think because watching Ted Lasso and his superpower of kindness made me want to read about similarly good-hearted characters--and Julius Heartstriker, Nice Dragon Extraordinaire, fits that mold quite well. I also re-read my own books, haha--in part because I wrote them for my own taste and so I thoroughly enjoy them, and also because I plan to do some work on the drafts of a Lena story and a Ruslan story., so it's good to immerse myself in the Shattered Sigil world again. I'd love to finish those drafts up while the Cara story, The White Serpent, is off with an editor. 

I'm returning to the day job tomorrow, which is good because I'll need some distraction. Today I heard from my surgeon about my pathology results (where a pathologist examined the tissue removed during the surgery). The good news: no higher stage invasive cancer found, phew! The bad news: more pre-invasive cancer was found than expected, so I may need to have a second surgery to take more tissue. Later this week, the surgeon is meeting with the pathologist and the "tumor board" (a group of doctors) to further discuss the results and make a decision about a second surgery.

As you might imagine, I am not thrilled about the possibility of going under the knife again. But as cancer goes, this is still pretty low-key. No invasive cancer found means no chemo needed, which is a huge relief, so I plan to focus on that. Or actually, just focus on work and writing and family fun, until I get further word from the surgeon. Onward...

Glorious autumn day in Queenstown

Tuesday, April 18, 2023

Get your screenings, friends

"Hey, did you hear back about your mammogram yet?" my husband asked me. It was mid-February, the height of New Zealand summer, and we were having a spaghetti date night at long-time Wanaka icon The Cow.  (You might think a restaurant named The Cow would be all about steaks, instead of featuring only spaghetti and pizza. But no, the name comes from the original Queenstown location being built in a stone barn. The menu may be limited, but the spaghetti is pretty darn tasty.) 

"Nah. They'll text me if the results are clear. Last time it took a week or two." Even as I spoke, a niggling thought popped up. Hadn't it already been two weeks since my mammogram? Was it a bad sign if I hadn't heard anything yet? Well, but I'd heard everywhere was short-staffed since the height of the pandemic. Probably the screening people were just backlogged. With that, I dismissed worry. Our conversation moved to other, more fun topics.

But a few days later, when I got a call from a kind-voiced woman explaining that she was a nurse calling from BreastScreen Otago, my stomach sank. 

"Your mammogram picked up a small area of concern," she said. "A cluster of tiny calcifications. The cause could be benign, but we'll need to call you back in for further imaging."

I'd been called back once before, on my very first mammogram, back when I was living in the US. "Your breast tissue is very dense," was what they had said back then. "That's common in younger women, but it makes it hard to identify problems. We need to do some more imaging."

That call had come right after I'd buckled my toddler into his car seat, after a fun morning at a museum in Denver playing with a bunch of cool hands-on science exhibits. When I hung up and slid into the driver's seat, I looked in the rear view mirror to see my son already tilted against the side of his car seat, fast asleep. At the sight of his small face, a pang of visceral terror hit me. A friend of mine had recently been diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer off her very first mammogram. My own first mammogram was earlier than normal, because my mother had breast cancer in middle age.  She'd survived, but only after several painful and difficult rounds of chemo.

Please, no, was all I could think. Not while my son is so young. 

That time, I was fortunate. My further imaging came back clean. I continued to have yearly mammograms in the US, which then shifted to every other year after we moved to New Zealand, since that's the standard interval here for the free breast screening program. 

I'd never been called back again. Until now. And nobody had talked about calcifications before. I pored over the information sheet the nurse emailed to me. Calcifications are common, it said. Most aren't due to cancer. When breast cancer cells are detected because of micro-calcification, they tend to be either ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS) – pre-invasive cancerous changes in the milk ducts of the breast – or small early breast cancers that have not yet spread.

Hanging up this time, I didn't feel terror. Only a kind of heavy resignation. My mother had been diagnosed when she was only a couple years older than I am now. But her cancer was not caught that early. Driving to Queenstown for my imaging appointment, I clung to the idea of "early" and "small." 

That proved true. After further imaging, a stereotactic biopsy, and an MRI, I've been diagnosed with DCIS, a.k.a. "stage 0" not-yet-invasive cancer. Baby cancer, the doctors tell me. Cancer on easy mode. 98% survival rate. No chemo needed, just excision surgery and perhaps a course of radiation. Assuming we don't identify any lurking invasive component when we analyze the tissue removed in your surgery. 

Assuming is a word that leaves a lot of room for worry. Uncertainty is always a challenge to handle, at least for an engineer like me. At least I won't have long to wait for answers. My excision surgery is tomorrow. If you're reading this, cross your fingers for me. 

And get your screenings. One of the reasons I decided to talk about this publicly was because it's helped me so much to know about friends who went through the same experience. 1 in 8 women will be diagnosed sometime during their life, the statistics say. In New Zealand alone, 9 women are diagnosed every day. And the ages are skewing younger. Both my doctor in the US and my doctor here in New Zealand mentioned that they're seeing far more breast cancer in 40s and even 30s, compared to when they began their practice. Perhaps due to better screening, perhaps due to something environmental, but the point is--don't put off that mammogram or ultrasound. If your mother or other female relatives had breast cancer, ask for screenings starting 10 years before their age of diagnosis, rather than waiting for the official age recommendation. The earlier an abnormality is found, the easier the treatment.  

Sunday, February 5, 2023

State of the Schafer: Still Not Dead

 Right, well. It's been long enough this time that I've been getting the occasional email from a reader wondering if everything is okay, so I figured I'd better confirm that yes, I'm fine. Still very busy with my job at Narrative Muse (which I'm still loving), and still writing (very slowly), but if I'm honest, being busy isn't really why I haven't been posting or interacting much on social media in the last year. Not to get too heavy, but I feel like the COVID era has destroyed any hope I had in humanity. If people can't come together against an infectious disease that kills and disables, what chance does the world have against the far more difficult and insidious challenge of climate change? Far more likely that we will just keep right on accelerating toward a terrible future. 

I don't want to talk about big issues online when I have little that's hopeful or useful to contribute, and it's hard to talk about anything these days without veering into big issue territory (witness this post!). So mostly I just stay silent online--or avoid social media altogether and spend time outside. There's still beauty in the world, and it won't be here forever, and I'd like to appreciate it while I can. 

On a day to day level, though, all is good at Casa Schafer, which I know we're very fortunate in being able to say. For anyone interested in what we've been up to, I can catch you up in pictures, and maybe share a little beauty that way. Let's see, the last time I posted here was May 2022, so let's start in just afterward...

June 2022: This was a pretty quiet month, because the kiddo caught COVID from school and we were isolating with him. (My husband and I wore N95 masks while caring for him, and thankfully avoided getting sick.) The kiddo had a miserable few days and then took about two weeks to fully recover his energy. He was particularly annoyed that while he was ill, we had snow all the way down to lake level (rare in Hawea). What a bummer to miss out on playing in backyard snow with Comet! 

July 2022: With the kiddo recovered and NZ's borders fully open, we traveled to Sydney to see our Aussie family for the first time since the pandemic began. It was really lovely to be together again, and a bit of an eerie experience to see some of the changes wrought in the Sydney by the pandemic. (The international terminal, for example, was still something of a ghost town. Hardly anything was open past security, which was quite a difference from the plethora of shops and restaurants I recalled.) 

Our first view of Sydney in years

August 2022: Despite avoiding COVID on our Australia trip, my husband and I finally succumbed after he returned home from a work trip. He was 3 weeks past his 4th shot, at the absolute peak of protection the vaccine could provide him, which was a very good thing as he's in a higher risk category. He had mild symptoms but took a long time to feel 100% recovered. Happily he did finally get back to normal, unlike so many of our friends who ended up as long haulers. I was more like the kiddo--a few miserable days, then some lingering fatigue that cleared up after a week or two. Plus I too missed out on great snow--while I was ill, our local ski fields had some epic powder days. Alas!   

Comforted by Comet in my time of COVID. (Though actually after the first day of me being sick, the pupster decided hanging out in bed was pretty boring.)

September 2022: Feeling very fortunate to have recovered, I returned to the ski slopes. Thanks to a nice deep base from all the early season snow, the skiing remained good into the spring. Getting in some time in the montains lifted my mood in a way nothing else does! 

Springtime view across the Matukituki Valley

October 2022: The pupster turned 2 years old--officially an adult! He still has enough energy to power a small country, though. Happily, as you can see from the photo, he does now sometimes chill out. (So long as I have provided him with a solid hour of rabbit hunting beforehand, that is!) 

November 2022: Hawea enjoyed a glorious start to spring. Rhododendrons aren't native to NZ, but lots of people grow them in their gardens, and the floral display seemed extra spectacular this year. 

December 2022: This month was meant to be all about family. First, our Aussie relatives came over to Hawea for a visit, and when they headed home, we headed off to North America to meet up with my family for a wintry Christmas. Or at least, that was the plan. Snowmageddon hit Vancouver, our flight was cancelled, we scrambled to piece together new flights and still managed to make it to our first intended destination of Victoria. My family got stranded while connecting through Toronto, and had to spend Christmas there. Due to minimal availability and maximal prices on any open seats, we weren't able to meet up at all, which I felt pretty sad about. Yet there remained lots to enjoy about our first ever trip to British Columbia and Washington's Cascades. The Christmas lights were epic, especially in Victoria's Butchart Gardens, and the town of Leavenworth, WA. Tree skiing is something we don't have in NZ, so we delighted in skiing glades at Stevens Pass in Washington and Whistler in Canada. Some of our Colorado friends were able to join us in Whistler, and it was wonderful to hang out with them again.

Lights at Victoria's Butchart Gardens

Leavenworth, WA

The kiddo and I enjoying powder in Stevens Pass trees. (And yes, the kiddo is taller than I am now.)

Dinner with friends at Whistler

January 2023: It's definitely an odd experience to return from the dead of winter into the heart of summer! The Auckland area of NZ has been hit very hard with flooding and heavy rain, but down south in Hawea, it's been hot and dry. A good excuse to head to the uncrowded beaches of NZ's southern quest to learn to surf continues, with plenty of wipeouts. 

Our fav surf spot, Colac Bay

Like most things on social media, this quickie recap leaves a whole lot out. What about writing, some of you might ask (assuming anyone's actually stopping by this blog, after all this time, ha!). After receiving comments from beta readers on The White Serpent (the Cara story), I did some more revision on it. I'm about to finish up this 2nd revision, at which point it'll go off for a paid edit pass. I'm still working on the Lena and Ruslan stories and The Dreaming Sea. The writing has to fit in and around the day job and household tasks, so my pace remains that of an arthritic snail, but I do keep inching along. 

In past years, I've agonized over how to write faster. For 2023, I've decided to chill out about it. I'd rather have fun with writing than turn it into a source of stress. I guess that's my theme for the year ahead. More chill, more mindfulness, more treasuring of small joys. We'll see what lies ahead.  

Summer colors