7 Horrifying Facts About Chemotherapy

I originally wrote this in January 2016 and submitted it to Cracked.com, which I was greatly enjoying at the time. Never heard back from them, so here it is.

There are about a bazillion different types of cancer. Not all of them require or even benefit from chemotherapy, but, when we hear “cancer”, chemo is what we tend to immediately think of, and fear the most. Except, of course, dying.

I have “difficult” breasts, and I’ve had cancer scares before. Each time, the most frightening possible outcome, to me, was chemo (yes, chemo scared me more than death). My nightmare finally came true: in late 2014 I was diagnosed with breast cancer requiring surgery and then chemotherapy (followed by radiation and hormonal therapy).

While chemotherapy may well save my life (we’ll get to that), it has proved in some ways to be almost as bad as I’d feared – and, in other ways, even worse. 

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My Brilliant Speaking Career

This post was originally drafted in March 2015, don’t know why I never published it then. I was undergoing chemo at the time so I probably simply forgot about it.

Since I returned to the US to work and live in 2007, I have attended many highly technical events for each of my employers. At most I was present to run a camera, social media, or the event itself, so my knowledge of the technologies being discussed was not at issue. But I was becoming a recognized expert on social media and technology marketing, and began speaking at conferences (tech and non-) on those topics.

My employers did not always have clear policies about what conference travel they would pay for. Usually, if it was a related tech industry event, my expenses would be covered without demur. Sometimes I felt that I’d be stretching a point, and did not ask.

Then came Monktoberfest. Though the 2013 edition was only its third, Monktoberfest and its sister event, Monki Gras (in London), were already well-regarded events that combined unusual, thought-provoking tech talks with… really good beer. By all reports, it was a great combination, and my then-employer’s founder/CTO Jason Hoffman as well as our VP of Engineering had spoken at Monki Gras the year before.

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Women in Tech and the 2016 US election

Note: This piece was originally drafted in March 2017, but for some reason I never got around to publishing it. If Kamala Harris does become the Democratic candidate this year, everything I wrote back then will be even more true – and worse with the racism that will accompany it.

The US election was taking a toll on women even before its hideous denouement last November.

The constant, blatant misogyny against Hillary expressed by both left and right was exhausting. We could see ourselves in her: working harder, being more prepared, having done all her homework (and everyone else’s) yet being judged on her hair, her makeup, her clothing. Being told she was too shrill, too combative, too much like someone’s mother. Not nice enough.

Some women were attacked directly and personally by Gamer Gaters turned Bernie Bros (perhaps many of them Russian agents or bots), driving some off of social media, some out of public discourse altogether. It was a scary time to be a woman expressing opinions.

Some women chose not to engage publicly at all, only revealing themselves as Hillary supporters near the end, when it seemed safer to do so. There were many “coming out” stories like this in private Facebook forums, where we tried to give each other strength.

Yet it wasn’t enough. The atmosphere was so saturated with sexism and other forms of hate that we could barely breathe. “Lock her up!” “Emails!” “Crooked Hillary.” So many people were so willing to believe evil of her. Willing to believe anything except that she was a brilliant, qualified human being who would run the country well.

For women in tech, 2016 featured the usual, endless drumbeat of stories about women being harassed and discriminated against in our field. Of tech companies promising to do better on diversity, some putting millions into “building the pipeline” and training their staff about unconscious bias. Yet, year on year, diversity numbers weren’t budging.

Meanwhile, our own experiences in tech, and more brave women telling their stories publicly, informed us that nothing had really changed. Men who harass and discriminate still get only slaps on the wrist. They still get away with promoting their male buddies over more-qualified women on their teams. The women end up leaving those teams, or companies, or tech altogether.

For me, personally, it’s been very hard. I really should be looking for a new job, but the psychological barriers are enormous. Back around October, I needed to write a description for a job I might possibly do at a famous company. I’d had half a dozen informal conversations with them already, everything looked great, everyone seemed to like me – there were no negatives. I knew what I needed to write down and email to them to keep the process moving. But I couldn’t get started. I was paralyzed with self-doubt. Is my experience actually good for anything? What is it I do exactly, and how can I explain it? Who cares about me? All this company apparently cared about was young engineers (whom they pictured as white or Asian men in jeans and t-shirts).

In the back of my mind was the thought: If Hillary – said by so many to be the most qualified person ever to run for president – gets attacked so viciously just for running, what chance do I have? My only value to society is as a body (not even that now – I’m too old!), a wife, a cook, and a caretaker of others (at home and at work). 

I did eventually get the job description written (with considerable encouragement from Brendan) and sent it off. The company posted an opening for a splendid job which suited me to a T. As they finally told me a few weeks after the election, someone else got that job. I was of course deeply disappointed.

I’ll never know for sure why. Sexism? Ageism? An internal candidate got preference? They simply found someone they liked better than me? But I worried that I said something “wrong” in all those chats and interviews. Or I looked wrong (my breasts are too big, since chemo I can’t wear makeup), dressed wrong, fidgeted too much, laughed too loud… who knows? 

Postscript, July 2024: The famous company was Facebook. About a year later I got a job at Amazon instead.

A Theater-Goer’s Diary: Anything Goes

Enrico and I saw this show with Patti LuPone at a Sunday matinee in 1988. It was the start of our Cole Porter obsession.

I had bought tickets at the last minute and we somehow ended up front row center. The stage, only about 4 feet above the level of our seats, represented the deck of an ocean liner, complete with a railing.

When we arrived to take our seats, I had been puzzled at a rectangle of soft foam taped to the floor more or less under my feet. Later in the show we learned what that was for: there’s a scene in which two characters are leaning on the rail talking, swigging from a bottle of champagne. They finish the bottle and drop it over the rail – cue sound effect of bottle falling and finally splashing. It landed on our feet.

Being so close to the stage was amazing — we were often less than 10 feet away from Patti LuPone, and I never saw her sweat.

After the show we took the train back to New Haven, turned on the Tony Awards on TV, and there she was again:

Playbill cover for Anything Goes at the Lincoln Center Theater

Toxic Corporate Behaviors

Death by PowerPoint

PowerPoint is a powerful and useful tool, but it is widely abused in corporations, especially internally. Most slide decks cannot contain all the details needed to truly evaluate an idea, technology, etc. – presentation slides are not intended for this use, but many people pretend that a deck can contain all you need to know to make a decision or understand a result. 

I have seen and worked at multiple organizations where many hours of staff time and even professional graphics help were applied to make a deck beautiful – for internal use. A shiny slide deck and a persuasive speaker could gain support for incomplete or even bad ideas, or persuade the higher-ups that something had been a huge success when it had actually been a failure.

Some organizations try to curb PowerPoint overload by imposing a limit on the number of slides that can be included in a presentation. At Ericsson, I was amused and appalled that some people worked around this by putting four slides onto one, resulting in text so tiny that you could not read it except by viewing the deck afterwards on your own screen. I asked why they did that. “Oh, we learned that from [bigname consulting firm, I forget which].” Great. We paid millions to learn bad habits.

When I joined Amazon in 2017, it was a document-based culture; PowerPoint was never used internally. If you had an idea for a product or service, you could write a document about it, maximum 6 pages plus supporting appendices which you were not guaranteed anyone would read. There was a specific structure for these docs, including a mock-up press release for the product launch, detailing what it was about and who would buy it, complete with made-up quotes from imagined or real customers. You had to supply supporting data about the expected market, why your new thing couldn’t be easily competed with, and more.

This document would be presented to CEO Andy Jassy and his team at one of Andy’s famous CHOP meetings. I attended only one of these during my 4+ years at AWS; it was interesting and useful, and I came away impressed with Charlie Bell for reasons that had nothing to do with the matter at hand. 

In the CHOP meeting, if Andy’s team agreed that your idea was a good one, you’d be given funding and support to go ahead with it. More often, you’d be sent back to think harder about it and add more details and data before they were ready to say yes. If they didn’t agree at all, they said no, and that was the end of it. But at least you had supplied all the elements needed to make a sensible decision. 

I don’t know whether Amazon still works this way. If they’ve started using PowerPoint internally, that would be an unfortunate erosion of an effective company culture.

Deirdré Straughan on Italy, India, the Internet, the world, and now Australia