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My mantra when we were building was, “It’s just a mountain cabin.” So, pretty much, it’s just a mountain cabin, but a beautiful welcoming home and I truly love it. The housing appraiser called it a “friendly little place” and my sister Phyllis says it reminds her of a dollhouse.

It’s a tiny charmer, built with love and by my family—the siblings and nieces and nephews who still live in Colorado all had a hand in it. My brother Ed and his son Matt built the main part: the exterior, a simple double-garage sized rectangle, 480-square-feet, with a green metal roof. The rest of us finished the interior and built the decks.

Our kitchen cabinets are antique cupboards from Pella, Iowa. The coffee table is a wooden icebox my dad made sometime in the 1950s. The heavy wood toolbox he used to lug tools all over Pueblo when he built his house sits along one wall. The bed is a walnut four-poster that Joe and I got from Goodwill when we were first married in 1970. If I did it again, I would have more windows, but those we do have bring in the Colorado sun and light up the place like a welcoming lantern.

We’re all off the grid, with solar power, propane gas, a composting toilet, a small wood heating stove, and well water. Our only utility is the phone line and that is erratic. Cell coverage is minimal because we’re in a mountain valley.

Our deck faces the meadow and the mountain, with the back of the cabin to the road. There’s little human activity on the road, although we often see signs of bear and deer and, once, a mountain lion, on it. The only people who ever use it are family, friends, or people who are lost, usually looking for the scout camp. We have to tell campers they can’t get there from here, that our road is a dead end and they have to turn around and drive another 45 minutes back and around, even though it’s only a mile away.

This is an excerpt from Burn Scars: A Memoir of the Land and Its Loss, about the aftereffects of the East Peak Fire on this little bit of paradise.

The Spanish Peaks of Southern Colorado

The earliest settlers of this beautiful land said the Spanish Peaks in Southern Colorado were sacred. It feels holy here. (The East Spanish Peak is on the left.)

The locals call them the breasts of the earth, or Wahatoya, using the Comanche word. Geologists call them the Spanish Peaks. The great twin mountains, the East Spanish Peak and the West Spanish Peak, rise up from the high desert of Southern Colorado, alone and distinct, their own separate mountain range. Breasts emerging from the earth.

The East Peak rises to 12,683 feet; the West Peak is nearly a thousand feet higher, at 13,625 feet. Two enormous pyramids reflecting the azure of the Colorado sky.

The geological highlights of the Spanish Peaks are the immense and stunning walls of rock, or dikes, that radiate from the peaks for miles at widths from a foot to 100 feet. The largest, the Big Wall, stretches 14 miles from the West Peak toward the town of La Veta, looking like a natural version of the Great Wall of China.

Dikes are rock walls that formed 25 million or so years ago when volcanic activity broke cracks in the earth—earthquakes—through which lava flowed, filling the gaps with molten rock, which then dried, creating underground walls. The bigger the quake, the bigger the dike. As the ground eroded, the walls began to emerge, and through millions of years, the resulting structures, the dikes, grew into formations that are the focal point of the land around the peaks.

Some dikes remain underground, some barely break through the earth, and some create awe-inspiring ramparts that dominate the landscape like mythical vestiges of an ancient land. Scientists come from around the world to study these geological marvels and have counted at least 400 separate dikes around the two peaks.

The Comanches and Utes who once lived here believed the mountains were sacred and those who lived in their shadow were blessed. It feels holy here. And after the East Peak fire of 2013 burned 13,500 acres of the mountain’s mostly forested land, we’re praying for a resurrection. Our prayers are not being answered the way we’d hoped.

This is the introduction to Burn Scars: A Memoir of the Land and Its Loss, a chronicle of the 2013 East Peak Fire and its aftermath on the land and its creatures, including the people whose lives it forever changed.

The p53 protein in its natural state, sometimes called “the guardian of the genome,” is a front-line protector against cancer. But the mutant form appears in 50 percent or more of human cancers and in 80 percent of triple-negative breast cancers. It actively blocks cancer suppressors. Researchers at the University of Houston Rice University have discovered the same mutant protein can aggregate into clusters. These in turn nucleate the formation of amyloid fibrils, a prime suspect in cancers as well as neurological diseases like Alzheimer’s. The research was led by Peter Vekilov at the University of Houston (UH) and Anatoly Kolomeisky at Rice University. 

The condensation of p53 into clusters is driven by the destabilization of the protein’s DNA-binding pocket when a single arginine amino acid is replaced with glutamine, they reported. “It’s known that a mutation in this protein is a main source of cancer, but the mechanism is still unknown,” said Kolomeisky, a professor and chair of Rice’s Department of Chemistry and a professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering. “This knowledge gap has significantly constrained attempts to control aggregation and suggest novel cancer treatments,” said Vekilov, the John and Rebecca Moores Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering and Chemistry at UH. 
The mutant p53 clusters, which resemble those discovered by Vekilov in solutions of other proteins 15 years ago, and the amyloid fibrils they nucleate prompt the aggregation of proteins the body uses to suppress cancer. “This is similar to what happens in the brain in neurological disorders, though those are very different diseases,” Kolomeisky said. 
The p53 mechanism may be similar to those that form functional and pathological solids like tubules, filaments, sickle cell polymers, amyloids and crystals, Vekilov said. Researchers at UH combined 3D confocal images of breast cancer cells taken in the lab of chemical and biomolecular engineer Navin Varadarajan with light scattering and optical microscopy of solutions of the purified protein carried out in the Vekilov lab. Transmission electron microscopy micrographs of cluster and fibril formation contributed by Michael Sherman at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston (UTMB) supported the main result of the study, as did molecular simulations by Kolomeisky’s group All confirmed the p53 mutant known as R248Q goes through a two-step process to form mesoscopic condensates. Understanding the mechanism could provide insight into treating various cancers that manipulate either p53 or its associated signaling pathways, Vekilov said. 
In normal cell conditions, the concentration of p53 is relatively low, so the probability of aggregation is low, he said. But when a mutated p53 is present, the probability increases. “Experiments show the size of these clusters is independent of the concentration of p53,” Kolomeisky said. “Mutated p53 will even take normal p53 into the aggregates. That’s one of the reasons for the phenomenon known as loss of function.” If even a small relative fraction of the mutant is present, it’s enough to kill or lower the ability of normal, wild-type p53 to fight cancer, according to the researchers. 
The Rice simulations showed normal p53 proteins are compact and easily bind to DNA. “But the mutants have a more open conformation that allows them to interact with other proteins and gives them a higher tendency to produce a condensate,” Kolomeisky said. “It’s possible that future anti-cancer drugs will target the mutants in a way that suppresses the formation of these aggregates and allows wild-type p53 to do its job.” 

I have “gone flat,” as have many women I know. That beguiling descriptor applies to breast cancer patients like me who do not have reconstruction after a mastectomy and therefore have pancake chests. After my bilateral mastectomy in 2015, I didn’t want foreign material in my body. I miss my breasts, no doubt about it. In Western culture, breasts can define us as sexual beings; without mine, I feel a tad less desirable. Breasts equal beauty and I have the profile of a pencil. But I can remedy this with bras with prostheses that are comfortable and look natural, so why sign up for additional surgery and a continued need for medical surveillance?

Many other women choose differently, especially those who are younger; I understand and respect the importance of reconstruction for their own mental and physical well-being.

But my decision to “go flat” was right for me, and new research shows I am in good company.

The great majority of women who have decided against reconstruction are comfortable with their choice, according to a study published in the Annals of Surgical Oncology. READ THE STORY HERE.  

 

Readers in the UK: Here’s your chance to participate in research through King’s College London on   the psychological effects of breast cancer, and how to build resilience through online participation. From the news release:

Worrying (thinking about how things might go badly in the future), is normal from time to time, but for most people this passes fairly quickly. However, some people find that once they start worrying, it is very difficult to stop. Research studies have shown that people who are particularly resilient experience less worry and low mood. In the present study, we hope to increase resilience and decrease low mood and worry in people who have had breast cancer. We also want to find out how people find doing the intervention via the web-platform.

For more information, and to see if you are eligible, check out The Frame Project.

While memoirs are written from one person’s perspective, the lives of families and friends naturally become part of the telling. All those affected by the East Peak Fire share the story I tell in Burn Scars: A Memoir of the Land and Its Loss. I am heartened, energized and, yes, relieved, that those whose lives I put into the book have responded with pleasure, thanks, and encouragement. Many readers have asked to see the family and friends who shared my story. So this is for you.

First, there’s Ed. The shot of him below is from 2012, when we hiked the West Spanish Peak, “our” mountain’s twin sister, the westernmost breast of the earth. (The prologue to the book explains that.)

Ed, on the Wahatoya Trail, 2012

The group shot of Gwyn, Ed, me, and Joe is from 2006.It shows the forest before it burned. I had just finished chemo for breast cancer, so the funky hat hides my bald head.

From left: Gwyn, Ed, Pat, Joe. Sweet Sofie is the dog in front. She’s now buried in the pet cemetery.

Dave, who warned us of the fire and gave us time to get out just before the flames came swooping down our ridge, took this wonderful selfie in front of the pond by his house. The East Peak and the top of the West Peak are in the background. Dave grew up in the house where he now lives, which his dad built. His mom, Ruth, lived there until her death in 2010.

Dave, on his property, with the East and West Peaks in the background.

Harlan and Pat stand in front of their berm house, with the peak in the background. They both grew up in Colorado, ran a successful business in Kansas, then moved here. Harlan is the man in charge of most things. First, he is the one who told firefighters our little settlement was up the road and, therefore, helped save it. He also arranged for us to have garbage pickup in normal, no-fire years, and has done seriously important work on our road.

Harlan and Pat in front of their berm home, at the entrance to our valley.

The shot of me and Joe and our kids is one of my favorites. It was taken just after we had the boulder moved to the front of the cabin and before the three adorables entered our lives—Ellen’s husband Steve and their two sons.

Joe, Pat, Josh, Ellen in the early days of the cabin.

The year after the fire, our grandsons visited and fished for tuna in our creek. Sadly, they were unsuccessful. Cute as the dickens, but no tuna.

The tuna just were not biting that day.

And, finally, Ross, who was a regular companion on our walks, but who died before the book came out. Here’s he’s napping next to Ed and Gwyn’s guest cottage.

Ross, such a good dog.

To order your copy of Burn Scars: A Memoir of the Land and Its Loss, go to Amazon, Bookshop, or your local bookseller. Or contact me for an autographed copy.

I can see the pirate on the mountain from the window in front of my desk in the cabin.  It’s a formation of trees and rocks that create a Johnny Depp sort of swashbuckler, with features defined by 50-foot ponderosa pines poking out of granite skin. He has a pert nose, neat beard, and a large, graceful hat; one eye squints and the other one is covered with a patch. — Burn Scars: A Memoir of the Land and Its Loss.(Photo from 2012)IMG_1473

The pirate was a big casualty of the 2013 East Peak Fire.

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Now, most of the pirate’s eye and nose are gone, his beard a pale shadow, barely visible against the rock of the mountain. His eye patch, plume, and part of his hat have some life to them, the rest is burned away. We hadn’t been up to check on it, but we heard the miner’s shack was also gone. 

We and other neighbors once used the pirate as a beacon—if we left the mountain, we could still see him, guiding us back. We now have a vague reminder of our swashbuckler on the mountain, but it’s a sad one, a sign of all the forest we have lost. And since 2013, the United States alone has lost more than 40 million acres to wildfires. While the West has always had forest fires, these new ones are beasts—increasingly larger and hotter, fueled by dry timber and insect-infested trees that are the result of the climate crisis. Now, as I write this, California, Oregon and Washington are burning with a historically destructive force, sending ash-polluted air across the country. What will be left after that conflagration? And will we get serious soon about slowing this devastation down?

If, like me, you see this land as God’s creation and recognize that we have a responsibility to protect it, check out Interfaith Power and Light, a faith-based group that shows us how to be better stewards of the land God entrusted to our care. 

Get Burn Scars: A Memoir of the Land and Its Loss from your local bookstore, or on Amazon.

Or contact me for an autographed copy.

A news release from the George Washington University (GW) Cancer Center. 
Genetic modifier HDAC6 was found to control tumor growth and halt metastasis in triple-negative breast cancer in vivo, according to a new study published in the journal Cancer Research by investigators at the George Washington University (GW) Cancer Center.
Immunotherapy – the use of drugs to stimulate one’s own immune system to recognize and destroy cancer cells – has been successful in melanoma and other cancers. However, it has been less effective in breast cancer.
“There is an urgent medical need to find new ways to potentiate or increase the efficacy of immunotherapy in breast cancer, especially in aggressive and highly metastatic triple-negative breast cancer,” said Alejandro Villagra, PhD, member of the Cancer Biology Program at the GW Cancer Center and assistant professor of biochemistry and molecular medicine at the GW School of Medicine and Health Sciences. “Our research lays the groundwork for a clinical trial that could lead to new, life-saving treatment options for breast cancer patients that do not respond to conventional immunotherapies.”
Molecularly targeted agents, such as HDAC6 inhibitors, have been widely described in the research literature as cytotoxic – toxic to both cancerous and healthy cells. Villagra and his research team found new non-canonical regulatory properties of these epigenetic drugs, discovering that the inhibition of HDAC6 has a powerful and strong effect on the immune system unrelated to the previously cytotoxic properties attributed to HDAC inhibitors.
This research demonstrates for the first time that HDAC6 inhibitors can both improve response to immunotherapy and diminish the invasiveness of breast cancer, with minimal cytotoxic effects.
“We are excited about the work because, in addition to the potency of immunotherapy, this drug alone is capable of reducing metastasis,” said Villagra. “This could have implications beyond breast cancer.”

Some good information here (OncLive) about TNBC and CDK4/6 Inhibitors, especially clarifying the different types of TNBC. Scroll toward the bottom of the article. 

An excerpt, from Ruth O’Regan, MD. chief of the Division of Hematology, Medical Oncology and Palliative Care within the Department of Medicine and associate director of Clinical Research at the University of Wisconsin Carbone Cancer Center:

However, when you look at TNBC, there is not just 1 type of breast cancer; there are 4 to 6 different types under that triple-negative umbrella. One of them is the luminal AR subtype, which looks like a luminal ER-positive subtype genomically, but is actually ER negative and AR positive. This led to some trials looking at single-agent antiandrogens to treat these AR TNBCs. Overall, both enzalutamide (Xtandi) and bicalutamide (Casodex) produced pretty modest activity. The question become, “How could we make these antiandrogen drugs more effective in these AR-positive TNBCs?” 

I had thought I was doing a decent job managing the stress of the pandemic, social unrest, my cancer advocacy and concerns, economic instability, the climate crisis, and everything that is 2020. I wasn’t. 

Here’s how nature helped and how it might help you too. 


Double rainbow on the ridge opposite my deck.

A deep sigh overwhelmed me as I sat down with a cup of tea on the deck of our mountain cabin—a shock down my neck, through my tense shoulders, to my arms, and into my clenched fingers. An unexpected, visceral response.
For a moment, I sat unmoving as my muscles contracted, then relaxed, and relaxed more. It felt almost violent. An emotional exorcism.
I often exhale a long, healthy sigh on this deck, a natural reaction to the miraculous calm and quiet before me. I look out at a meadow, across a tiny stream, over to a forested ridge. To my right looms the mountain in whose shadow we spend the summers.  
But this new reaction was far beyond that simple act of deep breathing. It felt more like an attack.
I had thought I was doing a decent job managing the stress of the pandemic, social unrest, my cancer advocacy and concerns, economic instability, the climate crisis, and everything that is 2020. That’s an incomplete list, and even reading it is stressful. I knew I was traumatized, but I was sure I was handling it just fine, what with being me and all.
Or not.
Our hummingbird feeder attracts gorgeous guys like this. You can put a feeder just about anywhere.
As I sat down in the mountain sun, I had unconsciously unleashed a batch of negative emotions that had skittered out of my body like little demons: fearanxietyangergrief, stress, confusion, depression, disgust. More, I’m sure.
Most of us are facing post-traumatic stress disorder after the year that feels like a lifetime—and, in many ways, is. Those of us with cancer in our histories are especially susceptible to PTSD, even years after a diagnosis. How do we keep our lives, our communities, our country, and our planet afloat when we’re all hot zones of trauma? READ MORE

An honest and vulnerable meditation on the trauma of life in contemporary Colorado, put to the page with uncommon grace and insight. Prijatel is a compassionate guide in exploring that chaotic time. Most important, she offers hope for recovery and resilience.

Laura Pritchett, Author, Sky Bridge, winner of the WILLA Award

A tiny cabin in a remote Colorado mountain valley. Off the grid, built by hand by the family who lives there, in a land that’s silent, wild, and beautiful—until June 2013 and the East Peak Fire. The cabin survived, but the woodlands became a burn-scarred landscape of splintered trunks and blackened branches. This is the story of how author Patricia Prijatel and her family and neighbors escaped the fire. More important, it’s about what came after, as the ruin of the land and its people grew: flash floods on eroded land, invasive weeds crowding out grass and seedlings, hurricane-level winds breaking healthy trees, dangerous orphaned animals, toxic air, and stress leading to life-threatening diseases.

Burn Scars: A Memoir of the Land and Its Loss (Clementine Press) is about a love of the land, of hope challenging despair, of grief, and resilience. With searing honesty, Prijatel chronicles life on her 35 acres of paradise and ties it to an unprecedented transition for America’s natural forests, the life they nurture, and the people witnessing their tragic loss. Her story serves as a love song, a warning, and a glimpse of the future as wildfires remake the places we’ve loved.  

An elegy and a wake-up call. Prijatel writes a deeply personal and wrenching story of loss that touches us all. Like fire, her memoir is a reckoning that urges us to examine our priorities and recognize our first allegiance is to the earth, our one true home.” Karen Auvinen, Author, Rough Beauty: Forty Seasons of Mountain Living

A moving meditation on our connection to the land, and a potent wake up call to the devastating effects of climate change.” Tanja Pajevic, Author, The Secret Life of Grief, winner of Nautilus Silver Award

An important story. Prijatel chronicles her personal journey of loss and climate grief that touches our collective experience. But it is also a story of healing, for as we face this crisis, we are challenged to discover a resilience within ourselves and in the generative power of nature.” Leslie Davenport, Author, Emotional Resiliency in the Era of Climate Change

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Patricia Prijatel is a journalism educator and writer whose goal is to help people make sense of things with hope and humor. Her last name is the Slovene word for friend. She’s the author of three books: Burn Scars, a Memoir of the Land and Its Loss (Clementine Press),Surviving Triple-Negative Breast Cancer (Oxford University Press), and The Magazine from Cover to Cover (Oxford University Press). She has written nearly a thousand articles for publications including Psychology Today, Better Homes and Gardens, Diabetic Living, Cure, and Print.