Thursday, April 26, 2012

The Chemo Lady

April, 2012

Greetings, World!
Yep, Fran Di Giacomo is still here -- painting vigorously and burning the candle at both ends -- living my personal version of a fairy tale (supported by a great medical team).    I always knew there was an angel on my shoulder, so I painted her portrait which you see here behind me.  I want to welcome all art lovers/collectors, "chemo-clubbers", and everyone in between to visit me here once in a while.  I don't have a lot of time to baby-sit this site, but occasionally I'll be adding some new "laughter and lessons" stories for your entertainment, show you the latest painting I'm working on, brag about art exhibits, etc.  Hopefully I'll also get to respond to a few comments.  As many of you know, I am a portrait artist, and author of the book, I'd Rather Do Chemo Than Clean Out the Garage:  Choosing Laughter Over Tears.  I want to thank everyone who has written to tell me how much they've enjoyed my book, and how it helped them through a challenging crisis.  Each letter was a validation of the effort that went into making the book a reality; when I do motivational speaking, the personal testimonies from attendees is heartwarming confirmation of my survival techniques and trench-warfare wisdom.  I also invite you to visit my website  to view my art, my complete biography, and read about my book which is available thru any bookseller -- and now available as e-book.  I might as well start at the beginning, and tell you how the book came to be.
                                                         From OR to PR:               
                               Publishing a funny book about cancer
                               by Fran Di Giacomo, PHD (Perpetually Hairless Dame)
        I needed to write a book, and had every opportunity an author would need to fail.  As a professional artist and career cancer patient (breast and ovarian), I’d been on chemotherapy for 5 years, and spent most of my time in the hospital.  I didn’t have a computer, fax, cell phone, or college degree.  I just knew how to juggle multiple tumors, surgeries, chemotherapy, art galleries, portrait commissions, armies of medical staff, and enjoy life.  People noticed and called for advice; doctors asked me to talk to patients, survivor groups invited me to visit, and my phone was constantly ringing with terrified patients on the other end of the line.  I wanted to help everyone, but it was hard to get my message across in a phone conversation; they were looking for a silver bullet – I was trying to tell them about the pot of gold between their ears.

            Sitting at my easel, painting a commission for an art gallery that knew nothing of my medical challenges (I was a member of “cancer anonymous”), my brain visualized the chapters of a chemo-survival book.  This would not be just another pink and blue cancer book; in order to truly help people, it would be shameless, outrageously witty, power-packed with trench warfare wisdom, and just wicked enough to hold their attention without losing my dignity.
            While recovering from another dastardly surgery and too weak to paint, I sat in my recliner with yellow pad, pencil, and eraser.  In old-fashioned cut/paste tradition I wrote chapters and a friend typed them while I researched queries, agents, and publishers. The result of that information was more terrifying than the chemotherapy permeating my body, and statistics showed my 30% chance of survival was better odds than publishing this book!  When you live every day in crisis mode, what’s one more statistic?  
             My manuscript needed professional help: How? Where?  I mailed it to a recommended editor, and checked into the hospital for more slice and dice.  Days later in my hospital room, I lay clutching a morphine button and nursing nine tubes snaking in and out of my body while my husband read the editor’s response; his overview was humorous and clever and he seemed perfect for the job.  The editor suggested I would offend millions, but as an artist accustomed to nailing my guts on the wall for the world to critique, I was undaunted.  I knew my audience.
            His finished manuscript was a frustrating disappointment.  I wanted this book to bounce and bubble like beer; his droll, long-winded version slid down like wine and put me to sleep.  I kept searching for doctors – and editors.  Responses from agents resembled my medical chart, with phrases like “questionable substance”, “no known cure”, and “do not resuscitate”.   Confidence crisis was becoming a new medical term. Incredibly, I found a publisher in my city who had the professionalism, efficiency and expertise I needed.  Time was of the essence, because a cancer magazine was planning a story on humor and would reference my book – if it was actually published.

           Book-signing invitations were mailed, a caterer was hired, and I was in the publisher’s office, talking on the phone with the manager of the printing/binding company.  It seems a machine had broken and on-time delivery was impossible.  Chemo was the perfect preparation for writing a book; they both involve dizzying heights, depressing lows, and nerves of steel!  Recalling an episode of “The Sopranos”, I suppressed a giggle and stated calmly, “My name is Di Giacomo, I know where you live; I have cancer, and I have nothing to lose.  Will I have books in time for my party?”
            “Yes, Mrs. Di Giacomo.  You will have books.” 

             It’s been over 20 years since breast cancer, 14 years of chemo treatments for ovarian cancer, and 24 visits to the operating table, but my book and I are alive and well! A multitude of readers, interviews, articles, and speaking engagements have rewarded my persistence.  Sometimes our mountains seem too high to climb, and we give up on our dreams.  Dare to dream – don’t give up your fairy tale! 
            This is a glimpse of my fairy tale:  I just won an award for my oil portrait of my 2 yr. old grandson,  who I thought I'd never live to see!  I am  "Mimi", and he is my "Sweet Sugar-bear".

       Fran Di Giacomo is an artist, and author of
  I'd Rather Do Chemo Than Clean  Out the Garage: 
             Choosing  Laughter Over Tears.  
       Visit Fran at

 ~ ~ ~ stay tuned for more stories ~ ~ ~

              ARBORETUM         AFTERNOON                                     

            by  Fran  Di Giacomo, PHD

              (Perpetually Hairless Dame)

            Was there ever a more beautiful day to be alive?  When I close my eyes I can still see it:  San Francisco, warm sun, crisp air so clear that from the peak of Mount Tam, we could see Texas.  Our son and his wife toured us around the sights, delighting us with their obvious affection.  We laughed a lot and I privately savored every moment, storing it away to be retrieved and relived on a less cosmic day.  What a marvel to be blessed with this day; statistics had given me only 30% odds.  Do career cancer patients see a little clearer?  Laugh a little louder?  Open their hearts a little wider to let in more of life’s wonders?  Do we really have the best deal after all, because we learn to live more in one day than some people know in a lifetime?  Do we eat more chocolate??

            Fourteen years of chemo has left me short of energy, so our itinerary was “the most for the least.”  Flowers love California, I love to paint flowers – the arboretum was a must. The greenhouse was an enormous fairy castle which promised Amazonian wonders.  Anxious to see the ancestors of all my dead house plants, I paused on a fairy’s bench for a chocolate fix, changed shoes to relieve Doxil-distressed feet, and ventured in.  Gleefully groping our way along the jungle path was a trip down memory lane. “Oh, look,” my husband teased, “it’s the ficus tree you killed on Water Street.”  It wasn’t my fault – the ambitious stick was bowing over at the ceiling so I cut off the top and it died within twenty minutes.  (Obviously no survival skills; we know people like that.)  We marveled at the regal display of rich, velvety gloxinias.  I’d received almost every known variety over a lifetime of surgical events, and they all died before my stitches dissolved.

            Feathery ferns, mystical hanging gardens, enchanting orchids – they dazzled and delighted, reminding my husband how many he’d rescued from the dead plant pile, revived, and brought back in the house to succumb under my care.  Our party stood dwarfed by the outrageously aggressive dieffenbachia:  “Hey, Mom, wasn’t this the twelve-foot tall plant on Spring Lane?  We came home and found it collapsed on the floor.”  (Yep…chemo has brought down a lot of giants.)

            I need to pace myself – find another fairy bench and sneak a few chocolate-caramel clusters.  Is that a clearing up ahead?  Maybe I can sit down without being absorbed by a Venus Fly Trap (yeah, I’ve knocked off a few of those in my sordid past).  There seems to be an ethereal aura of light just ahead…I need to sit down.”

            Gratefully, the path opened into a large patio – destination bench in sight.  I hurried to claim an open seat, then halted transfixed.  Proudly displayed like the fairy godmother in all her splendor, bathed in glorious California sun and surrounded by a mock chemistry lab, was a botanist’s dream: a Taxol tree!  Slumped on the bench under the tree, I rummaged for an emergency Almond Joy, and simultaneously considered dry heaves, convulsions, and the ever-popular primal scream.  Foremost was an uncontrollable urge to grab the fairy bench and transform the Taxol tree into toothpicks.

             Years of riding the cancer roller-coaster prepared me for these moments:  Deep breath, more chocolate, assess the options. Was I here to enjoy this day because of Taxol?  Comprehensive details quoted statistics on depleted forests, and how many acres were harvested for a certain “Chemo Lady” in Texas.  Most comforting was how scientists learned to duplicate chemicals in the Taxol tree, so unless someone brings me another plant, I won’t be responsible for more botanical mortality.

            A less-experienced chemo-clubber might choose to stay on the bench, recounting the gallons of Taxol they’d absorbed, feeling the painful damage in every nerve and muscle, and eventually dissolve into a puddle under the tree.  Too much of my life was spent sitting under an IV tree with Taxol dripping into my veins.  Through a door on my right was a flower garden with over 100 varieties of dahlias.  Fresh air, warm sun, brilliant colors, and bright promises awaited; all I had to do was get up and walk through that door.   Which would you have chosen?
Fran Di Giacomo is an artist, and author of I’d Rather Do Chemo Than Clean Out the Garage: Choosing Laughter Over Tears. Visit Fran at 


I've been having a great deal of fun with my latest artwork --  a series of 5 weathered doors, each measuring 30" x 40".  This new collection reveals the mystical beauty of nature transformed by wood, weather, and time.  You can see the complete collection on my webpage at

                   ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ Dear Readers: I recently received this beautiful story about one family's holiday dealing with cancer.  I'd like to share it with you here.

                                            Giving Thanks During the Holidays
                                                 By Cameron Von St. James

Like most families, we always enjoyed the holidays.  In August 2005, my wife Heather and I were especially looking forward to the holidays because we had just celebrated the birth of our daughter Lily.  As we moved closer to the holiday season, we talked about our families’ traditions and traditions that we wanted to begin with our own new little family.  Little did we know that all of those plans and dreams would have to be put on hold, and my wife would soon be fighting for her life.  

Our daughter was only 3 ½ months old when Heather received the diagnosis.  Heather’s fatigue and shortness of breath, symptoms that we both chalked up to the stresses of being new parents, had persisted and even worsened. Three days before Thanksgiving, after several appointments and tests, we were told that Heather had pleural malignant mesothelioma.  I never knew how quickly we could go from making holiday plans to trying to figure out how to fight cancer.  I did not know what I could be thankful for that year.   The little I knew about mesothelioma was enough for me to realize that we had a tough road ahead of us.  I would worry about the uncertainty, and I would think about the worst possible outcomes.  

We still came together for Thanksgiving.  Heather’s family celebrated the holidays with us, and they knew after the holidays we would have to go to Boston for Heather’s treatment.  After eating Thanksgiving dinner, we had to endure the dreaded conversation of how Heather’s family would help us during this time.  This one conversation was the worst moment for me during our crisis.

During the conversation, we discussed everything.  We discussed our finances, Lily’s childcare, and all of our bills.  Before Lily was born, Heather and I both held jobs.  However, the mesothelioma diagnosis and the treatment that came with it caused our expenses to increase and our income to decrease.  I never imagined spending Thanksgiving this way.  I truly thought that this year would not be much in terms of holiday celebration.
It took many years before I realized everything I should have been thankful for.  I had family members with me who were willing to put all of their responsibilities on hold just to help me and my family.  My pride did not allow me to see this for many years, but everything is clear to me now.  Without their love and support, we would have been lost.

For this holiday season, I remember all that I am thankful for.  I am thankful for my family, friends, and a healthy daughter.  The people who were there by our sides are the people who make me want to celebrate this holiday season. After a long, difficult fight, Heather has been able to celebrate 7 Christmases with us, and is cancer free today.  My family will have many more holidays together, and I hope that our story can help those going through cancer this year find some things to be thankful for.