How My SImple Pine Desk Helped Me Survive Cancer

Posted By on February 24, 2014

Story by Michele Adragna

On Valentine’s Day 2010, while doing paperwork at my desk, I felt severe

abdominal pain that worsened over the course of the day. My husband convinced me
to visit the emergency room. A CT scan revealed a burst ovarian tumor. The
following day I had emergency surgery. After 51 years of perfect health, I had
cancer. In one moment our lives were changed forever.

photo (1)

Four days later I was released home. The ten day wait for my follow up
appointment, and prognosis, was filled with fear. I realized I could not do this
alone, so I called everyone I knew that had survived cancer and asked what
specifically helped them. Sitting at my desk I spoke with my friend Bobby in
LA, and she shared with me how she found her strength and managed her fear.
Reaching out to those important to me, I humbled myself and asked for their
healing thoughts and prayers. It was at my desk I realized the truth in the
words of the Buddhist Nun Thubten Chodron: “All we have is today, no one knows
the future.” Focus on the here and now. Breath in, breath out. Stay positive
and in the moment.

Test results indicated that the cancer had not spread. With a hugh sigh of
relief, I knew I wasn’t leaving this earth anytime soon. Sitting at my desk, I
began making decisions about hiring my oncologist, Reike practitioner, massage
therapist, acupuncturist, naturopath, and psychotherapist. Crying while
describing the effects of chemotherapy to the short term disability insurance
worker. Inquiring why my health insurance denied paying for my wig. Consulting
with the social worker and nutritionist at the cancer center. Speaking with my
sister while creating my “visualization” which helped me through chemotherapy
and every week since. Gathering objects to use on my alter for my weekly ritual
of focusing myself and giving thanks. Talking with folks at LIVEstrong and the
American Cancer society. Reading literature on chemotherapy, books on cancer and
healing. Playing with our kittens we adopted after reading about the healing
power of pets.

I purchased this simple pine desk at a second hand store in 1979 while attending
the University of Oregon National Student Exchange Program. Put me back 20
bucks. Came with me on every move I’ve made since. Sanded and refinished it
once. While sitting at this desk I have made major decisions and pondered all my
life’s transitions: grieving relationships, graduating college, applying for
graduate school and my first mortgage, writing my dad’s eulogy, creating our
wedding invitations. I can afford a beautiful new desk, but I choose to keep
this old and reliable friend by my side.

Since my story began, many other acquaintances, friends and family members have
been diagnosed with cancer. Some have passed. Others survive. I sit at my desk
writing cards, calling to offer words of support and wisdom. In my opinion, no
one can say it with more eloquence than the Dali Lama: “When we meet real
tragedy in life, we can react in two ways. Either by loosing hope and falling
into self-destructive habits, or by using the challenge to find our inner

While at my desk my hair has grown back and I have regained my strength and
confidence. I have checked results of my blood tests and first three 5K races,
and dollar amounts for the fundraiser/photo-show my husband organized for Pluta
Cancer Center. My fear subsides and hope has taken it’s place. I realize that
my desk and I have a lot in common. We may be getting on in years, but we are
strong, we are survivors.


Posted By on October 15, 2012

Story by Susan Syracuse

A journey of 500 miles doesn’t start with just the first step – it starts with a great leap of faith. I refer to the Camino de Santiago in northwest Spain, a 500-mile trek spanning spectacular geography and offering an opportunity to connect with people from all over the world. Folks along ” The Way” greet each other with a resounding “Buen Camino!”, which typifies the spirit of goodwill among Camino pilgrims.

The Camino de Santiago has its starting point in neighboring France at St. Jean Pied de Port. It steeply ascends the storied Pyrenees, down through sky islands into the first of the Spanish towns, Roncesvalles. In this breathtaking mountainous area one expects to see Heidi and her grandfather show up walking their goats. It is here that one actually registers as a certified pilgrim and here that you receive your pilgrim passport and scallop shell. The route ends in Santiago de Compostela, 500 miles from this point, near the sea. It is believed that wending one’s way toward the ocean is the reason for the shell being the ageless symbol of the Camino.

photo by Ken Leffler

photo by Ken Leffler

The Camino was heavily traveled during the Middle Ages with tens of thousands of pilgrims walking it every year. Unrest in Europe in the ensuing years saw a decline in the number of travelers along The Way but in recent years there has been an increasing number of modern day pilgrims. Today, the route has been declared the first European Cultural Route by the Council of Europe and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

People choose to walk the Camino for various reasons, some religious, some spiritual, some historical, cultural, archaeological, for
exercise, or simply to experience weeks of walking in a foreign land. I took 42 days to walk it during June and July. Despite actress and author Shirley Maclaine’s writing about all the wild dogs she met along The Way, I felt very safe as a woman walking alone,no wild dogs in sight.

From the early days there was always an infrastructure to support the pilgrims in their arduous efforts to reach Santiago, water, food, lodging, pilgrim hospitals. Today the infrastructure is alive and well, albeit a bit more sophisticated. It is possible to carry a daypack, stay in classy hotels, and have your backpack sent on ahead by van. This, of course, is frowned upon by” real” pilgrims.

Pilgrims now-a-days are easily identified by their backpacks, the shell hanging from them, the pilgrim passport. There is generally not a need to show your blistered feet as proof. As a pilgrim, one is entitled to a reduced rate for lodging, almost always guaranteed a bed, and ordering from the reduced price pilgrims’ menu.It is possible to get massages along The Way, pharmacies are set up with sections for any type of pilgrim pain one might experience. There is generally a cafe around a corner somewhere with great coffee, lattes, cafe Americano. At one place, I readily accepted their free coffee. Their response when they saw my shock at the brutally strong brew was, “Oh, we just call it gasoline for pilgrims.”

The Way is well marked. There are yellow arrows pointing you in the right direction and old stone waymarks listing the number of kilometers one has yet to go. All English speakers I met were carrying ” A Pilgrim’s Guide to the Camino de Santiago ” by John Brierley. His book is incredibly detailed and indispensable for being able to walk the Camino with confidence. The majority of pilgrims travel with backpacks. There are those who choose to bike it and a rare few who who ride horses. Some folks I met were walking it for the third or fourth time. Some choose to walk sections of it every year until they complete it. There were even those I met coming the other way, towards me. I discovered that , no, they weren’t disoriented. They had made it to Santiago and decided to turn around and walk all the way back.

Brother Martine is an example of one of the many unforgettable people you have the honor of meeting on the Camino. He had recently returned from 40 years in Africa where he taught French and helped build schools for thousands of children. He now helps to run a hostel for pilgrims that traces its roots back to the 11th century. I sat with him under a fig tree in the peaceful , walled garden drinking tea and hearing his stories. At one point, his hands swept the scene, the buildings, the church, the town of Trinidad de Arre and he said, ” This wasn’t built yesterday, you know “. Got it. This is one of the main reasons people come.

The Camino showcases Spain’s vibrant wildflowers, the drama of medieval bridges, local cheeses and wines, rippling fields of wheat and oats, magnificent cathedrals, myriads of museums and art galleries, shepherds and their flocks, distant cowbells, superb Astorga chocolate, pure sweet air, Roman ruins, lively tapas bars, storks, swallows, and the elusive cuckoo, camaraderie among pilgrims, the warm, welcoming hospitality of the Spaniards.

John Brierley quotes Paul Hawken in his book. “We are speeding up our lives and working harder, in a futile attempt to slow down and enjoy it.” The Camino gives the pilgrim that chance to slow down and just enjoy.

CIAO from Mariarosaria Russo in Naples, Italy

Posted By on April 24, 2012

Although that is my real name, everyone calls me Rosy. I was born in Portici, Naples in 1948. At the age of 9, I entered a Children’s Home in town because my father abandoned my mother with 7 children. My younger sisters Renata and Silvana came to live at the orphanage as well. There we received a full education, love and shelter.

The orphanage was a donated beautiful villa of the 17th century right on the sea with lovely grounds and plenty of open space. We were about 400 children ,yet the orphanage was able to provide us with all the love and care we needed. Many children were complete orphans and others came from broken homes or very poor families.

I was given the great opportunity to study in the states for a year, sponsored by one of the sponsors of the orphanage. I studied to be a business secretary. When I returned to Portici, I was warmly welcomed back at the orphanage and I started working in the English Correspondence Office. This gave me great joy and satisfaction because I could finally pay back all the good I had received. I worked there for almost 40 years until the Orphanage was forced to close down because of financial problems.

In 2002, I was retired but I just couldn’t see myself sitting at home and doing nothing when all around Naples there was still so much to be done for all the children and youngsters. So together with other good, willing friends, we organized “Imparare Giocando” which means “learning by playing”. We opened a day care center in a suburb of Naples.

Our center welcomes about 25 boys and girls from the ages of 5 – 15. We have them after school at 3 pm and they leave the center at 7:30 . When their homework is finished, they can participate in activities such as painting, cooking, “Easy and Fun English”, story telling,music, crafts. Our center provides them with a healthy environment as an alternative to being unsupervised in the streets after school and possibly introduced to negative influences.

We are all volunteers and we thank people from all over the world, England, the States, Holland….who are supporting us with their personal gifts. I firmly believe that each one of us can always share the little that we have and make it grow if we care for others. The aim is to make this world a better place for all. Very often it is much easier to say ” Oh, well, I can’t save the whole world” and just walk by. What can a Dollar or Euro do ? It can do a lot of good. If you choose, you can make a difference in the children of Naples. You can send gifts directly to the Association “Imparare Giocando Onlus “, Via Poli 80, 80055 Portici, Naples, Italy. You could also send gifts to the Children’s Mission , 169 Neshannock Trails dr., New Castle, Pa 16105, USA.(, 724-657-0147). Please specify that the donation is for Imparare Giocando.

I shall be happy to hear from you and answer any questions you may have. We need always good, willing people who want to share in the daily work and so if you are interested to come and spend some time in Naples, do write to me. My e-mail is

Our motto is ” Il miglior dono da dare a un bambino e amore”….The best gift to give a child is love.



West Meets East

Posted By on December 10, 2011

It is the season for giving thanks . I thought I would share some observations from my son Joe who is in India for 10 days with his family. This description is from New Delhi. India is definitely a country of contrasts. We often forget how fortunate our own lives are and how much we have to be grateful for. During this season , and always, let’s not forget to count our blessings and let’s not forget to ask how we can help those who are less fortunate. We’re all in this together.

“Holy (blank blank)! Now I understand why these people A.) want to blow themselves up and B) want to blow us up. This place is insane. You can’t live like this. Actually, you can but it’s not living. It is more like surviving which I barely did today.

We went to “Old Delhi”, heart of the spice/silver/fabric markets. I have never had culture shock like this. We were all slack-jawed and terrified. My wife’s sister had hired two “ tour guides” to plan out route but they were basically body guards. They stood at the front and back of our party and made sure we hustled along. Not that we had much choice. The crowds push you .You have never seen this many people crammed into a street. It makes Times Square look like pristine pastureland.

Add to that:lepers, dead dogs, human feces, beaten elephants, ten thousand rickshaws, motorcycles, monkeys climbing the sides of buildings ( which isn’t cute like in a zoo—it is apocalyptic like it is in CONTAGION !), non-stop honking and air so thick and polluted it feels like you are inside a forest fire( possibly because you are since they BURN everything out in the street) and that might give you an idea of what it’s like. It is more sensory overload than a Grateful Dead show. Your throat is burning. Your ears are splitting. Your stomach is queasy. Your nose is overwhelmed  by the scents of spices, dead animals, flower garlands and exhaust fumes.

The first fifteen minutes we really all thought we were going to die, and then, you actually start to get used to getting spit on, stepping in urine ( which flows down the street) and being grabbed by people missing noses and hands. At one point, we came upon the local dentist, performing a root canal—on a filthy blanket on the sidewalk. He and his patients kneel, barefoot on this mat, while he sticks tools that were soaking in a bowl of brown, fetid water—into the patient’s mouth—and passerby stop to watch every time the patient screams. After two hours in what can only be described as urban hell,  Augie , (his 9 year old son), put it best, ”I’m glad I saw this dad but, I think I’m ready for the fancy part of the trip now.” I’ve never agreed more” It is a heartbreaking description. It brings to mind an Italian grace, recited at mealtimes, that gives thanks for the food and asks that it be given, also, to the poor… because we are all brothers.

(Do check out “the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”. It looks like a great movie about India…trailer on You Tube)

One month after the Tucson Tragedy

Posted By on February 7, 2011

A Photo of Air Force One Arriving in Tucson

President Obama comes to Tucson

On January 8th, I was having brunch at a friend’s house and having trouble relaxing. Feeling jittery, I blamed it on her coffee. After leaving her house, I soon heard about the shocking shooting. Had I tuned into the bigger picture?

Much has been said and written about the tragedy since then. There is little I can add. Along with the shock of the horrendous violence there was also the pride and awe at the responses of the heroes present.

Here is a photo of Obama’s plane coming in to Tucson to participate in the mourning and healing. Words from his speech can stay with us to help make sense of this tragedy and of other confusing situations that we may face. ” What matters is not wealth, or status, or power or fame, but how well we have loved.”


At times like these it helps to turn to what spiritual leaders have to say. Because this tragedy surely brought home how quickly one’s life can change and even end, I will share some words from Daisaku Ikeda, the President of the SGI Buddhist organization.

“Unless we live fully right now, not sometime in the future, true fulfillment in life will forever elude us. Rather than putting things off until the future, we should find meaning in life, thinking and doing what is most important right now, right where we are — setting our hearts aflame and igniting our lives. Otherwise, we cannot lead an inspired existence.”


Pema Chodron is one of the foremost Buddhist teachers today and she offers just what we need to hear….how difficulty and uncertainty can become opportunities for awakening.

She encourages us to train in spiritual warriorship and to cultivate bravery. ” But the first step along this path is looking at yourself with a feeling of gentleness and kindness and it takes a lot of guts to do this.” She asks us to take off our masks, take down our walls, become more genuine. “A genuine heart of sadness is a heart willing to be touched by pain and remain present”

Summing up this entry will be Pam Sands. She is a Kripalu yoga teacher here in Tucson and she has studied with Pema Chodron.

” If we have a commitment to gentleness and honesty with ourselves , we can become more loving and respectful of ourselves and others. As we become less aggressive towards ourselves, physically, emotionally, mentally, we transfer that to those around us…..mindfullness if the key..observation without judgement”


My hope is that we all continue to grow together in creating more happiness and peace in our lives.