Sunday, October 27, 2013

Italy in Autumn

     A few days ago, Wynn and I were flying home from a trip to Italy.  It was a long day of travel and the end of an amazing journey.  I never thought I'd be able to experience an Italian journey within my cancer journey.  A few months ago Wynn suggested going to Italy because I was doing well and he feels that we should do as much as we can, while I can.  Having never been there, I was totally on-board with the idea, but also strapped with worry...What if we get there and something happens?  Will I be able to get home OK?  What if we put out a lot of money and at the last minute my health doesn't allow us to go? Trip cancellation insurance is hard to get and expensive when one has cancer.  Wynn has a wonderful way of moving forward when I'm stuck in a place of indecision. He ignores know, in that "loving" way only a husband can.

Mike, Ann, Wynn and me at St. Peter's Square

     In the past, we have always made our own travel plans.  This time we joined a Rick Steves (the PBS European Tour Guide guy) tour.  Wynn liked this tour because the group sizes are small and offer guided tours in the morning.  We were on our own to explore in the afternoon, or were on a bus or train to our next destination. Either way, I would be able rest, if needed. We went with our dear friends, Ann and Mike. Aside from having great folks to share this trip with, it was comforting to know that if I needed to rest, Wynn could still see the sights with them. We were also fortunate because our tour group turned out to be a great collection of interesting, active and chatty folks from all over the U.S.  (Because Rick Steves Tours tells you the level of activity you will encounter on their tours, and more importantly, that you will be carrying your own luggage throughout the trip, it seems that there's a certain profile for their customers.) While we had a great guide, Daniela, who accompanied our group throughout the tour, we also had local guides at each major site, (Vatican City, Rome's ruins, Volterra, Lucca, Ufizzi Museum). Included was a 2-hour wine tasting lecture by a sommelier in an ancient cellar in Tuscany.  Each of the local guides was outstanding in the depth and breathe of their knowledge, and in their ability to keep us engaged and entertained.  [We highly recommend this tour and would do another Rick Steves Tour in a heartbeat.]

     We started in Rome where we attended Sunday mass at St. Peter's Square. 
Inside the Vatican
Although we could see Pope Francis, we were so far back in the crowd that he looked like a speck.  We walked further back on the Square, where we discovered a simulcast of the mass on a Jumbotron.  Nice. The Vatican, St. Peter's Basilica, and the Sistine Chapel, as you can imagine, were spectacular.
     The following day we saw the ruins, including the Colosseum, the Forum and Palatine Hills. About 1/3
The Colosseum
of the Colosseum still stands, but you can easily tell how incredible it must have been in its day.  

     The floor of the Colosseum is no longer there, but the Italians have placed a partial floor so visitors can get an idea of what it was like.  Beneath the floor is a series of rooms and hallways that held exotic wild animals, gladiators, etc., which rose through doors in the floor.  [Note: the space under the floor and the scale of this structure - compared to the visitors.]   
Inside the Colosseum

      Admission into the Colosseum for events is said to have been free and anyone could come.  Apparently it was the Emperors' way of keeping the population happy, and when the masses were happy, the Emperor was less likely to be ousted or killed.  

     Palatine Hills Palace is the ancient Emperors' residence.  Despite living in a suburb with the same name for nearly 20 years, it didn't occur to me where the name came from.

Palatine Hills
     From Rome we traveled to an ancient Etruscan city called Volterra.  
The Etruscans pre-date the Romans and built a wall around their city to defend themselves from the Romans.  The city is on a high hill in Tuscany and the lower hills and valley below are breathtakingly serene.  The city itself is small, but rich with history, art and charm. There are wonderful local artists and the town is known for its alabaster craftsmen.  
     We stopped for an afternoon in Lucca, another small walled city in Tuscany.  
Walled city, Lucca
The cool thing about Lucca's wall is that it's still entirely intact and there's a path on the top of it so one can run, stroll, or ride a bike around the perimeter of the old city. We rode bikes, of course.  Lucca is Pucini's home town...for you opera buffs.


     The Cinque Terre region was one of our favorites.  It's on the Mediterranean Sea and part of the Italian Riviera. There are five small towns that one can hike to, or they are accessible by train.  There's a boat that connects 4 of the 5 towns. Bring a swimsuit, or not, they're optional on the beaches there.     

The Duomo in Florence
     Ahh, Florence...or Firenze, as the Italians say.  What an amazing city of art. The Duomo, THE  Catholic cathedral in Florence, is ornate in every way on the outside.  The inside is much more understated in it's decor and is very beautiful in its simplicity.

     Michaelangelo's, the David, waits for visitors in the Academy building.  There's no photography in the Academy.  If you want a picture of the David, you have to buy a postcard in the gift shop.  

     The Ufizzi Museum and the Pitti Palace Museum are incredible places to see paintings and sculptures by the great Renaissance masters and others.  Much of the art in Florence was acquired by the city in a donation from the Medici Family.  Although gluttonous in their over-the-top wealth, they owned a lot of incredible art that was well taken care of.  Because of families like the Medicis, their art holdings (of which there are thousands) are available to the public today.

     The Rick Steves tour ended in Florence.  Mike, Ann, Wynn and I made our last stop Venice.  There were many things I didn't know about this city:  1) It's
The Grand Canal
an island, 2)  About 1,000 years ago, the Venetians clear cut trees on the mainland and drove these wood pilings into the hard clay that lies beneath their city.  On top of the pilings, they erected their buildings, which still stand today.  3)  As long as the wooden pilings stay underwater, they will not rot - so they've been there for >1,000 years.  4) There are no cars in Venice.  You can arrive by train or plane.  To get from our hotel to the airport, we took a water taxi.  

             We were warned that the canals often have a bad odor, but perhaps because we were there in the Fall, we did not have that experience.  Gondola rides are 80 euros for 40 minutes, with up to six passengers, until 7:00 PM.  (Nighttime rides are 120 euros.)
The Bridge of Sighs

     This was a trip of a lifetime and I realize how fortunate I am.  I have a husband who wants to live life with me for as long as possible.  Wynn maximized the possibilities for seeing and doing as much as possible, while allowing for rest time whenever I needed it.  I hope, with all my heart, that we will have more chances to have shared experiences in new places.  Thank you to Ann and Mike, who made adjustments for me during this trip.  Let's find another place where wine is cheaper than water and go there next!

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Government Shutdown Trickledown

     Today was my monthly appointment with my local oncologist.  I continue to be doing well on Xalkori and for now it appears that my disease is still stable.  Other than some mildly increasing bone pain, I feel pretty well.  

     However, since the beginning of the government shutdown, I've been really, selfishly, upset.  There are a couple second-generation cancer medications being studied under government backed, (NIH), research protocols that I've been following, with great interest.   It's possible that I could need one of them in the future when Xalkori stops working for me.  These medications are in Phase 1 and Phase 2 clinical trials and while our government is shutdown, the  clinical trials are also shutdown.  I've emailed my Congressman and hope you will too.  Go to and enter your zip code to find who your Representative is...then please email him/her and let them know how this shutdown is affecting the ongoing medical research needed to help keep Americans, like me, alive.  Imagine how it feels to be the person who has exhausted all currently known medications and really needs these new drugs.  I know it could be me, or someone I know, or someone you know, or you.