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I am five days in to the WEGO Health Activist Writer’s Month Challenge and I’m stuck. Today’s post is an ekphrasis, of all things. It looks exactly like a word I would expect to find in a post about health or medicine, so it’s fitting that I have to look it up. Not what I expected, after all. Ekphrasis ( a noun) is  “a literary description of or commentary on a visual work of art.” Thank you again Merriam Webster. To complete this assignment, I simply need to visit flickr.com/explore and then write a post inspired by a random photo from the webpage and relate it to my health topic. Here goes …


cormorant at portobello beach

“Ekphrasis on a Sentinel”

The weather in Phoenix is perfect right now as we usher in Easter. It is exactly the kind of weather that people from rainy places covet. Today, the temperature reached a glorious 85 degrees, and we can expect a low of 55. This is why we live here. Conversely, from June until September, most of us will suffer a kind of amnesia about why exactly it is that we live here. Hot and bothered, we will retreat to air-conditioned rooms, and we will grumble that our backyard pools are just not cool enough. Invariably, someone in Phoenix, probably someone on vacation who has never encountered such sizzling temperatures, will make a point about the excessive heat by attempting to fry an egg on the sidewalk.  I find one of the best things about the Phoenix summer is the promise of escaping its searing desert heat to higher ground and cooler temperatures that are only couple of hours away. Summertime is when I miss the ocean most, when I long for an afternoon drive along the Antrim Coast not too far from where I was born.

So I felt validated to read earlier that one online world travel guide also considers the road trip along the Antrim coast, “one of the most stunning scenic drives that one will ever experience.” My father knows it like the back of his hand. Back in the early sixties, he drove an Ulsterbus for a living, and readily recalls the frequency with which his name appeared on the roster to do the run along the coast. Over 50 years later, he still recounts with a chuckle the story of Francis Hughes, a Ballymena man who had retired from the Royal Air Force and taken a job “on the buses.” One day, Francis returned to the depot whereupon he was asked for his impressions of his first run around the coast behind the wheel of a bus. My dad can recall the response verbatim,

The coast road in general is a succession of beauty points, intermingled with road hazards.

Only those of us who have negotiated those too-narrow roads can relate. Having driven it myself, I have a much greater appreciation for my father approaching Torr Head in a bus, on what he describes as a road “as steep as the roof of a house.” The bends so acute, the road so narrow, there was no way he could take the bus around a significant curve in one lock of the steering wheel. Sweating bullets, he’d have to take a couple of turns at it, and although the emergency bells were quite literally ringing, the old age pensioners on their day trip just continued to admire the view with its many shades of green and the sparkling sea below.  

The Antrim Coast never fails to capture my imagination, particularly its Giant’s Causeway, which I grew up believing to be the eighth wonder of the world. Like the Grand Canyon, it is one of those places that cannot be written about or photographed in a way that does it justice. Made up of close to 40,000 basalt columns, most of them hexagonal, and stretching for three or four miles along the coast and out into the sea, the Causeway is a colossal creation, quite literally. Now, we who grew up in Northern Ireland know the handiwork of giant, Finn MacCool, built this causeway of massive stepping stones so his girlfriend could easily cross the sea from Scotland. Still, for the more skeptical among you, there is always the scientific explanation behind its formation.

Pacific Coast Highway,is a close second. We could reach the northern coast of California in a fraction of the time if we just hopped on a plane, but much of the appeal America still holds for me is in its vastness, its states connected by highways that seem to stretch on forever, ‘from sea to shining sea.’ For several summers, we have driven to Morro Bay, California, which is halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, just west of Highway 1. Its landmark Morro Rock, the “Gibraltar of the Pacific,” is one of the Nine Sisters of San Luis Obispo County, a series of ancient volcanic peaks, all in a row, for over 20 million years. To my bird-lover husband’s great delight, the Rock is home to the endangered Pelegrine falcon, and we typically stay close to a the bird sanctuary that hosts several hundred species of land, sea, and shore birds. A eucalyptus grove is home to a rookery of great blue herons, and every morning when we peak outside to see if the rock is covered in fog, we are sure to find a watchful cormorant surveying the bay.

Reloading the page at flickr.com/explore I happened upon this photograph of a cormorant which immediately conjured up images of the three of us on our summer vacations in cool Morro Bay, of evenings spent watching birds and sunsets, of lazy afternoons spent in various farmers markets sampling freshly picked strawberries, of the sense of everything being right in our world so long as our days began with a nod to our “sentinel,” a cormorant, perched on a post in the shallow water where the eucalyptus grove touches the bay.

My breast cancer diagnosis has forever changed the connotations of certain words – “staging” I no longer immediately associate with the theater; “fog” I am more apt to attach to a state of cognitive loss rather than the thick cloud from which Morro Rock emerges most mornings; “cure” no longer the idiomatic “hair of the dog that bit you” but a terribly elusive thing all wrapped up in a pink ribbon; and, “sentinel.” Until cancer came calling, I freely associated with “sentinel,” the cormorant. Watchful, still, alert, the cormorant was sometimes the only point of distinction on a foggy morning.

Until I learned I had breast cancer, I don’t think I even knew about the sentinel node, the first lymph node to which cancer cells are most likely to spread from a primary tumor. Like my cormorant, the sentinel node is keeping watch, standing guard for my breast. In retrospect, I know I was more frightened by what a sentinel node biopsy would reveal than the prospect of the mastectomy and DIEP flap reconstruction. Preparation for this biopsy required the injection of a blue radioactive liquid directly into and around the nipple of my right breast. Three times. The sting of those injections was short-lived and mitigated by the kindness of the radiologist whom I’ve written about before. I don’t think I will ever forget him. Right before he administered those three injections, he said “I am so sorry you’re here, Yvonne.” I may never see him again in my life, and I don’t remember his name, but his acknowledgement of the trek I was about to begin across cancer country, and his genuine sadness to see yet another person begin it, was one of the finer expressions of humanity I’ve encountered in recent months. I even forgive him for not offering me more of the numbing medication. He sent me home to prepare myself for the surgery which would take almost 8 hours of the next day. That evening, while putting my wedding rings in a safe place and making sure I had my ID and insurance card, I thought of where the nuclear medicine might be traveling. And, fearfully, I thought of of the cancer that had been missed by three mammograms and wondered had it spread to near and distant places on my body.

The next day, my breast surgeon would be closer to knowing. She would be able to see where the blue dye had travelled, and in so doing would be able to track the path taken by the lymph as it drained away from that part of my right breast that harbored the cancerous tumor. She would be able to identify, remove, and examine the first, the “sentinel” node or nodes, to see if the cancer had spread. In my case, the tumor had been well-behaved. The nodes appeared clear. Such good news which was confirmed a week later when I received the official pathology report following the examination of those nodes under a microscope.

But because we do not know what caused my cancer or how we could have prevented it, we will continue to watch over it and wait for it to progress or to to hear in 5 years time “No Evidence of Disease,” which is not the same as “cured” and in my mind seems closer to “undetectable.’ Watching and waiting. Standing guard, but ready to fight when danger comes. On our watch, however, it might just be possible to bring an end to breast cancer by doing whatever it takes to determine what causes it and how to prevent it. That will take an army.

Grow the Army of Women.