Category Archives: Cancer

Sunscreen and Such Things

It’s the time of year when the Environmental Working Group (love those people) publishes their annual sunscreen report, rating the toxicity and efficacy of sunscreens. And I have some good news this year! I’ve made a few important discoveries.

First, here are a few products that I like (gawd, it would be awesome if someone was paying me for this placement but they aren’t).

For daily moisturizer and sunscreen I use this Cetaphil.

I’ve even found a sunscreen that EWG tolerates and that I like. It’s not all gooey and sticky. It’s the Neutrogena Sensitive Skin Sun block Lotion SPF 30. Be careful to make sure you get the right Neutrogena product because when you get above SPF 30 the ratings start turning red.

Now, this is the really big news… I’ve found a kids sun block that I like. It doesn’t even turn them blue and ghostly. It’s All Terrain KidSport Phineas and Ferb Sunscreen Spray, SPF 30.

Skin Deep beyond the sunscreen: there are now a bajillion +/- products in the database and it can be challenging to find and choose a new product. But, I’ve discovered that I can go to a category, like toothpaste, and start at the green end of the list and keep looking in the low toxicity scores until I find a brand name that I know I can get in my local store. Ta-da! Then I have what I need.

Do you all have any lotion or sunscreen products you really love? What are they and how do they rate?

Who in This Room and Writerly Things

It’s been a while since I did a book related post, no? Oh, I guess it’s been a while since I did any post. That explains so much. Anyway, there are a few things on the calendar this spring.

THIS Friday, May 18th, which is incidentally my mother’s birthday and the anniversary of the Mt St Helens eruption, the Young Survival Coalition is putting on a very fancy event at the Pan Pacific Hotel downtown. It’s called Courage Night (rawr) and there will be four of us writer and breast cancer survivors reading and talking. And as if that weren’t enough, there will be appetizers including “boneless buffalo chicken bites” AND “fruit skewers.” What more could a girl want? Also a no host bar. There’s that too. It starts at 7:00 and you can find out more info and RSVP here.

In the hope of encouraging and helping others write their stories, I’ll be teaching a free writing class at Gilda’s Club in Seattle on June 28th. Anyone who has been affected by cancer can sign up, and really, I can’t imagine many people can say they haven’t been affected by cancer, so that means you, you can sign up if you want. Really, I’d love to see you. Or you can tell someone about it. You can find out more and RSVP here.

Hope to enjoy a fruit skewer with you on Friday!

PS – if you’ve read Who in This Room: The Realities of Cancer, Fish, and Demolition, I’d love for you to write a review on Goodreads or Amazon or Indiebound or the wall of a public bathroom, wherever you’d like.


The List

My grandmother was made of hardy Scandinavian stock and she died a month shy of her 99th birthday. She was forced to retire at 92 and, at her retirement party, she pulled me aside, holding my arm just above the elbow and said, “You know Katherine, I never meant to retire.” I called her Bestemor which I’ve been told is grandmother in Norwegian. I said, “Yes, Bestemor, I know, I know.”

When she started using a walker it became too difficult to get around the grocery store and she relinquished this task to me and my father. Every week, one of us did her “marketing.” When it was my week, I’d call her at 9:00 am Saturday morning and she’d answer on the first ring. She’d be waiting by the phone in her bathrobe and wingback chair with her note pad sitting on her drum table. She’d read the list over the phone, starting with produce, then moving to boxed foods, the dairy case and ending with meats. My dad and I tried to get her to email the list. She could type lightning fast, but she just never took to the computer (enter, Bestemor, press enter, or double click, that means twice). Eventually we gave up and resigned ourselves to taking the list over the phone.

With the list came detailed instructions. “I’d like two lemons. Katherine, do you know how to pick citrus fruit? They should be large. They should be large and have smooth skin. I’d like two large lemons with smooth skin. Did you get that Katherine?”

I did my best to not speak during our phone calls as she was almost completely deaf, but sometimes it couldn’t be avoided. “Yes, Bestemor.”


“Yes, OK.”

“I’d like two bananas if they’re big and three if they’re small. As green as you can get.”

“I’d like four kiwi, but only if they’re from New Zealand. Katherine, don’t ever buy kiwi that isn’t from New Zealand.”

“I’d like a spaghetti squash, a small one. If they’re large, ask the produce man to cut one in half, they’ll do that you know.”

“I’d like a quarter pound of that ham you like.” I don’t like ham.

“I’d like a four pack of that soft toilet paper that’s on special for $1.49. That’s a good price. You should get some for yourself.”

It went on like this for 45 minutes – carrots with the tops cut off at the register, two pears soft at the stem, and head lettuce, not to be confused with a head of lettuce.

Once I had the list I would drive to the grocery store near her house. I’d fill up the cart and load the contents onto the belt. Three-quarters of the pile was always produce. More than a few of the checkers, assuming the food was mine, commented on my healthy diet. I usually laughed and corrected them because back then, I ate to please my mouth without a care for nourishing my body. I was an invincible 20-something with a taste for peanut butter milkshakes and a vague idea that vegetables were important.

Bestemor was still alive and I was still occasionally doing her marketing when, at 31, I was diagnosed with Inflammatory Breast Cancer and given a 10% chance of living 5 years.

I was in the midst of six months of chemo and wasting away when I started seeing a nutritionist. She told me I had to rebuild my relationship with food. This was shocking for me to hear and also completely right. After years of undiagnosed gastro pain, without realizing it I’d developed a paralyzing fear of food. She gave me baking assignments every week. She told me to eat what I made. She told me I had to start thinking of food as something that would nurture me and save me instead of something that would make me sick.

I knew exactly what I needed to do. Bestemor had been training me, teaching me all that I needed to know for years. It wasn’t only that I needed to eat more whole foods, clearly I did. I needed to plan what I would eat. I needed to make a list. I needed to go to the store and choose the best produce. I needed to prepare meals I enjoyed. I needed to eat them. I needed to nourish myself.

I started right away, rebuilding my diet from scratch. I eliminated soy and gluten which were known trouble-makers for me, and I minimized processed foods and sugars. I planned a menu every week, sitting down with my favorite cookbooks, choosing a few recipes, making a detailed grocery list and doing my own marketing. I discovered the healing nature of the creation and consumption of a meal.

Now, I’m almost seven years out of treatment and cancer-free as far as I know. My husband and I have a four year-old and a one year-old. Keeping the family fed, especially the picky toddler, can feel like a chore piled on to an already full to-do list, but I find few activities to be more satisfying. On good days, when I can get the kids to occupy themselves, or, better yet help out, it’s a cause to slow down and to take a moment to nurture my family and myself. For me the process of meal preparation has become a meditation in healing.

It’s been five years since my grandmother passed away, but I think of her all the time, like in the co-op market where I shop. I know the produce men there. We chat. They’re very knowledgeable and she would have liked that. Sometimes I think about her while I look for cantaloupes that are heavy and sticky on the outside and watermelons that sound hollow. Sometimes I pick up a few kiwis if they’re from New Zealand, and I almost always buy carrots, though I never ask them to take the tops off at the register. I can do that much for myself because, after all, I’m made of hardy Scandinavian stock too.

Katherine Malmo is the author of Who in This Room: The Realities of Cancer, Fish, and Demolition. It can be purchased anywhere books are sold. For more information visit

Making Sense

Two of my favorite breast cancer-related bloggers, Why Mommy and Cancer Culture Chronicles died on Monday. Susan Niebur was an astrophysicist and mother of two boys. Rachel Moro “believed ‘it’s time to move beyond pink ribbons’ and messages of ‘breast cancer awareness’ and start agitating for ‘real and meaningful action in the fight to eradicate this disease for good’” and blew me away with posts like this one about Komen’s allocation of funds.

Monday night, after the kids were in bed, I did the dishes without music or news so I could think. I thought about how strange it was that Rachel died just as Komen was coming under such fierce scrutiny. Was she coherent enough to see and understand what happened when they pulled funding from Planned Parenthood? If she was, did her interest and passion ever wane? Did she still care even though it was too late for her cure?

And I thought about how strange it was they both died on the same day. What were the chances? What did it all mean?

All this thinking and dish scrubbing brought me back to my friend Emily’s last few days. Josie is approaching the age Emily’s daughter, D, was when Emily died. Josie does exactly what little D did when her mom was sick. She is always moving and dancing, she makes up songs and sings them to imaginary friends, and she’s all smiles one minute and all scowls and crossed arms the next. She’s exactly as a four year old should be.

I remember when we were matched with Josie and I realized her birthday was the same as my good friend’s child and that gave me such comfort. As a new adoptive parent, I was subconsciously looking for signs, confirmation that the process had worked, that this was our child. Afterward, I saw it all around me, people finding reassurance in these found commonalities.

Death, especially when premature, always sends me out looking for signs, symbols, patterns. I seem to think that maybe if I can find the pattern I’ll find some cause and effect, and if I find some cause and effect I’ll see some explanation, and if I find some explanation then maybe I’ll come up with some justification that will make their deaths alright. I can’t keep myself from trying to make sense of the senseless.

As the evening wears on, I know that all I can do is keep scrubbing the dishes clean, keep scrubbing, keep thinking until my brain decides to let it rest. Eventually it will and then, since I am one of the lucky ones, in the morning there will be new dances to create, there will be songs to be sung to imaginary friends, and there will be sticky kid cheeks to kiss. And I plan to kiss those cheeks over and over again in the hope that maybe if I kiss them often enough and long enough I will leave a mark, a symbol, or a pattern that may someday help them to make sense of the senseless.

The Strangest Things Happen on Book Tour

A few weeks ago, I found myself carrying two cases of Who in This Room: The Realities of Cancer, Fish and Demolition, about 60 pounds of books, into Nordstrom’s Bellevue store. They were having one of their Nordstrom Fits America Events, where they fit women with bras and raise money for breast cancer research and asked me to read at the event. It was a different idea – a way to take a breast cancer-related event away from the pink weirdness and back to the individual story, to what breast cancer is really about. It was experimental, a little different, and I was pleased and flattered to be invited.

When I arrived, there was a table in the center of the store where we displayed the books, a director’s seat for me and a handful of chairs that were quickly filled. A small crowd gathered to listen. It was relaxed, intimate and cozy.

I’d asked the department manager for a microphone because I still had laryngitis and couldn’t project my voice. They delivered. Perfect. Lovely. I was set.

“Thank you for the mic,” I said.

“Sure,” the department manager said. “It’s hooked up to the sound system so everyone will be able to listen, even people in the dressing rooms.”

Oh, isn’t that awesome?! Um, I’m sorry, have you read this book? May not be appropriate to for all audiences. Includes adult topics and profanity. May not be appropriate for children, men and casual shoppers. Perhaps I should have put that on the back cover.

It was too late now, my introduction was underway and then, oh, here I am, microphone in hand.

Because it was a breast cancer event I chose to read from the first chapter about my decision to have a mastectomy and before I knew it, I was saying: You wonder if you will have enough skin to cover the hole (where your breasts used to be) and your husband says, “Don’t worry babe, I’ve always been more of an ass man myself.” Over the intercom. In Nordstrom. Lingerie. While innocent women shop for bras.

A Different Vaccination Question

This isn’t a post about vaccinating babies; I’ve already covered that. And it isn’t a post about vaccinating teenage girls against the HPV virus to prevent cervical cancer. Speaking of… Have you seen this Saturday Night Live skit, Lil’ Poundcake, the doll that administers HPV injections.

Ah, good times.

This post is about vaccinating me.

For many years (12?), the University of Washington Tumor Vaccine Group has been working on a vaccination to prevent Human Epidermal growth factor Receptor 2-positive (HER2+) Breast Cancer. My cancer was HER2+. I am at risk for recurrence, and a candidate for the trial.

Now, here comes my terribly un-technical understanding of the trial. HER2+ cancer cells have more receptor sites that enable them to grow and divide faster. The folks at UW have isolated the bits of the HER2+ part of the cancer cell and are mixing them with an agent in an effort to get the immune system to recognize and kill these cells.

The purpose of this trial is to find out how much of the agent makes it most effective. Everyone enrolled will get three injections of the vaccination and varying amounts of the agent, 28 days apart.

My oncologist suggested I look into the trial, but participation is up to me. I’ve had the paperwork on my desk for 6 weeks and I can’t decide. Here are the issues I’m thinking about:

  • At 6.5 years past my diagnosis, I am fairly low risk for a recurrence. Do I really need the vaccine?
  • Will I cause myself harm? Will long-term side effects appear later?
  • When I was on Herceptin, a miracle drug for patients with HER 2+ cancer my heart showed a rapid and alarming drop in ejection fraction, pumping capacity, which caused my oncologist to discontinue the drug immediately. My heart recovered but no one knows if we did any long-term damage.
  • If I don’t get the vaccine and have a recurrence then it’s too late. No second chances.

What would you do?

Books and Babies

2011 has been a big year for us. Legendary. We met little K in June. Five months later Who in This Room: The Realities of Cancer, Fish, and Demolition is being published.

Perhaps one could say that in 2011 I was expecting two babies. But there are some very distinct differences. For example, Little K is much cuter than the book. And the book doesn’t ask me to rub its head while I drive. The book doesn’t pee through its diapers at night and occasionally scream out with night terrors. The book doesn’t throw peas on the floor then burst into giant tears when you tell it to stop. The book doesn’t shriek like a baby pterodactyl when it’s tired. And, more notably, the book doesn’t pull up my shirt and try to give me zerberts on the stomach.

Conversely, Little K doesn’t sit quietly on my desk or in a box on my floor. He is rarely misplaced and never forgotten (although I can’t say the same for his shoes). He doesn’t have 139 neatly formatted pages and, so far, he doesn’t have nearly as many words, but I know he will someday.

Really, there is only one baby.

But there are some similarities. Both feel like once in a lifetime events. Both are epic creations. Both bring me joy. I am so lucky, fortunate and grateful that they both exist.

Since becoming a parent, my goals for my children have changed. No longer do they need to be the leaders of the free world. After watching them speak with bits of food falling from their mouths, throw tantrums over already-chewed pieces of gum, and dress themselves in brown polka dotted leg warmers and yellow striped socks, I’ve learned that they are who they are. What will be will be.

Now, I simply hope my children will find things – subjects, sports, activities, hobbies – they like and that they’re good at. I hope they can earn money in an endeavor related to this interest or some other career they enjoy. In short: I hope my children find their place in the world and people that make them happy.

My hopes for the book are similar. WITR had to be written. During and after treatment I was obsessed and consumed by those stories. I thought about them 24×7. I was working it all out, creating art from grief. It had to be done and now that it is done, I hope people discover its strengths and that people connect with it. In short: I hope it finds its place in the world and the people who love it.

That is all.

Who in This Room: The Realities of Cancer, Fish, and Demolition is out! You can buy it anywhere good books are sold.

Sunscreen Report 2011

Oh my god, the sun is out, where is my sunscreen post?! Imagine me digging around in the piles on my desk. Oh, that’s right, I haven’t written it yet. Save the kittens!

First off, you can get caught up with last year’s sunscreen news here.

The big news for this year is concerns nano zinc and titanium particles. These particles, when inhaled, have been shown to cause cancer in lab rats. More studies are needed before we know if they have a similar effect when absorbed through the skin, but for now, they’re easy enough to avoid.

Same as 2010, we’re trying to stay away from oxybenzone (endocrine disruptor). Vitamin A (retinl palmitate) is still controversial but also easy to avoid.

Kathy and Statia over at Safe Mama have already posted an awesome sunscreen report. They have a short list of what you should buy, with many reviews and feedback about texture, consistence, scent and efficacy.

The Environmental Working Group also just released their list of the best sunscreens. There are some great mineral and non-mineral options.

As for me, I’m still looking for the holy grail of sunscreen – the natural lotion that won’t make Josie bright blue. This year I think I’m going to try these

All Terrain Kidsport Sunscreen Spray SPF 30.

And the Aubrey Organics Saving Face SPF 15 Sunscreen for me. I love their conditioner and I could get this one at PCC.

How about you? Do you have a natural sunscreen you love?


A friend and I were recently engaged in a riveting email exchange about the merits of various natural cleaners and detergents when I realized our conversation was a blog post looking for a place to happen.

Just so you know I DO totally feel like the happy homemaker right now. Does your soap give you dishpan hands? But I’m going to carry on because this is useful information.

Please add to the conversation by sharing your favorite, or least favorite, products in the comments section.

Here we go.

We like Seventh Generation for the bathroom. I can’t say that I have done any research as to its claims of naturalness but I can say that they sell it at PCC, my local co-op, and they are usually pretty good about vetting products.

We like CitraSolv for the rest of the house. I love orang-ey smells!

I know there are a lot of you out there who use water and vinegar mixtures. How does that work? Do you use them exclusively for every application or do you occasionally slip a product in here and there? What ratio of water to vinegar works best?

For dishwasher soap, we use CitraDish. I used to have this terrible dishwasher that couldn’t clean a thing. I tried several brands until I finally found this one. It made my terrible dishwasher look good.

Now, for laundry… I was reading a post on one of my favorite blogs recently where she asked her readers what they used for laundry detergent. A ton of people recommended Charlie’s Soap. I’d never heard of it. I ordered some and it is awesome, non-toxic, and it makes my clothes and towels really soft. I cannot believe I just said that. Do you have dishpan hands?

Please, don’t make me suffer up here alone. Tell me what you like and don’t like. xoxo

PS – dispan hands?

Progesterone Did It

When I first clicked thru to read this story, “Estrogen Lowers Breast Cancer and Heart Attack Risk in Some.” I assumed it was another example of completely contradictory information, upholding the theory that almost anything can be proven to be good or bad for you if the right test is done in the right way. Hormones are GOOD for alleviating symptoms of menopause. No, they’re BAD, they cause cancer. Vaccines are GOOD for your children. No, BAD, they cause autism. No, GOOD, they don’t cause autism. Beets are GOOD for you. No, BAD… OK, that last one is just wishful thinking on my part. I hate beets. Don’t even try to tell me I haven’t had them fresh enough or prepared the right way. I’ve tried to love them, really I have.

But enough about me… Apparently when a woman is given estrogen she is also given a form of progesterone to protect her uterus. If the woman has had a hysterectomy she can take estrogen alone. The study followed these women, who didn’t need to take progesterone, for 11 years and found they were 23% less likely to develop breast cancer than the women who had hysterectomies but did not take estrogen.

Everyone seems to agree that more investigation is needed before any big changes are made, but who knows, maybe there’s a hysterectomy and estrogen therapy in my future. I do hope someone weighs in on this soon because it’s been, like, three whole years since my last surgery. I hardly know what to do with all my free time and extra body parts.