My web site is devoted to medical and treatment information about this rare cancer. My blog is devoted to sharing what has been the more difficult part of the journey for me, the emotional and spiritual road I've traveled as a rare cancer survivor.

Monday, February 25, 2008


I have a kind of interesting hobby. I raise Monarch butterflies from eggs.

I was at home with my kids when they were small. I only worked weekends, when my husband was home, and I tried to do the "earth mother" kind of thing sometimes. We spent a lot of time in county parks, we planted gardens, we made a bird sanctuary in our yard. I read them a book once about raising monarch butterflies and we decided to try it. It's a wonderful thing to do.

In late August when the Monarchs migrate to our part of the country, I follow one to a milkweed plant. There the butterfly lays a single egg the size of the head of a pin on only the underside of the leaf of a milkweed plant. Monarchs only lay eggs on the underside of a leaf as the eggs are then protected. Bitter milkweed leaves are the sole food of the monarch caterpiller, so when the eggs hatch, they have a ready supply of food.

I bring part of the plant with the newly laid single egg on the underside of the leaf home and put it in a glass terrarium. We watch as the egg hatches later and a very tiny caterpillar is released. It does nothing but climb up and down the plant looking for leaves to eat. It eats slowly and methodically all day every day for it's entire catarpillar existance. It does nothing but eat and rest and never leaves the milkweed plant it's entire life. I bring new branches of fresh milkweed leaves home every day. It sheds its skin a few times as it outgrows it.

One day, the caterpillar climbs a stick in the terrarium and spins a tiny network of webbing, as a spider does, on the arm of the stick. It puts it's feet in the web and hangs upside down, assuming the shape of a J. Its skin splits across its back, and its outer body, legs, head and all, falls into a heap on the floor leaving a wet, slimy mess of its insides.

But in just minutes, the slimy gooey mess hardens to become a beautiful green crysalis, an elegant green tomb with sparkles of golden glitter on it's edges.

After a week or two, the tomb becomes black, then clear. When the crysalis becomes clear, you can see the monarch butterfly inside.

The butterfly finally breaks free of it's tomb. It will sometimes spend the better part of an hour on my finger as it spreads its new wings for the first time. It seems to contemplate its new reality for awhile before it finally takes off in flight.

The Monarch butterfly then leaves me and flies away to congregate with hundreds of thousands of other Monarch butterflies that all meet at the same time every year in Mexico or California. It no longer eats bitter milkweed leaves, but the sweet nectar of flowers. I always wonder how it knows to find it's way across the country, I have a terrible sense of direction. Do the butterflies recognize or know each other when they arrive for the butterfly reunion?

I've always loved the Monarchs, but now they are very symbolic to me of the eternity I believe in. I always wonder if the caterpillar in its wildest imagination ever knew of the beautiful and free butterfly it would become. I wonder if it was ever afraid to leave it's life as a caterpillar, if it ever even imagined the world it would see and the places it would go as a butterfly.

I met a woman this year for the first time just hours before she died of signet ring appendix cancer. I wanted to bring her a gift. I brought her a photo of beautiful and free Monarch butterflies.

I thought of the Monarchs today when I read this quote by Patrick Overton:

When you have come to the edge of all the light you have
And step into the darkness of the unknown .
Believe that one of the two will happen to you
Either you'll find something solid to stand on
Or you'll be taught how to fly!


caredunham said...

My brother was recently diagnosed with cancer of the appendix. He had the HIPEC surgery & treatment in Baltimore about two weeks ago. I shared your blog with him as his oncologist told him yesturday there is a 30% survival in 5 years for his cancer. Thanks for being transparent so others hope can be restored.

Carolyn Langlie-Lesnik RN BSN said...

Thank you so much for your comment.
I so wish your brother the best, my heart truly goes out to all diagnosed with this disease. I think I know all of the HIPEC providers in Maryland, and they are all terrific, so he's had good care. I had less than a 30% chance of survival, I think mine was closer to 15%....and I'm almost 7 years cancer-free. There is hope...there is always hope in every circumstance.

Take care,

Alice said...

Carolyn, I think we know each other from the Rare Cancer Forum. I, too, had Dr. Paty, and love him! I had IP chemo in the fall, and just stopped systemic chemo after 7 of 12 rounds, as my side effects were too extreme.

But in addition to appendix cancer, we share the love of raising Monarchs. I get great joy in finding the eggs, watching the caterpillars hatch and grow, make crysallis, and become butterflies. I've been raising butterflies since my kids (21 and 25) were toddlers!

Thanks for all you do.


Carolyn Langlie-Lesnik RN BSN said...

Hi Alice!

We may have met on the Rare Cancer forum, but I haven't been back there in a few years, I don't think. When were you first there?

Very cool that you also raise monarchs! For me it is such a great thing to be a part of.
It's symbolic of hope for me. I have a friend who works with the Compassionate Friends non-profit and her group does annual Monarch butterfly releases. It's fun and meaningful on many levels.

I once had a catarpillar with a catarpillar infected with Tachinid Fly larvae parasite, though. I'm glad it was only once! That was a new experience.

Thanks for the comment and glad to meet another butterfly fanatic!

Take care,