Mindfulness in a mug

Ken UlappaCoffee mugs prove to be thought provoking

By Sarah Bello

When he gets up in the morning, Hammond resident Ken Ulappa likes to drink coffee from his mug, do yoga and meditate while listening to Japanese music. 

He thinks about the thousands of people who passed away in the previous day. Despite his stage IV colon cancer, he has lived to see another.

His simple clay mug, shaped by a potter’s hands, may not be of significance to most people. But for Ulappa, the mug is a quiet symbol, opening him to reflection and mindfulness.

“The mug helps remind me that life is short,” Ulappa says. “Healthy people go to bed perfectly healthy and don’t wake up. And I still get to play today.”

Ulappa says the mug is just an object. But its gentle reminder of what he has been through and the people he’s encountered along the way helps keep him grounded — and alive, he says. 

His cancer is contained for now. He’s fought the disease since 2015, long before the CMH-OHSU Knight Cancer Collaborative existed. He moved to the area after leaving Portland and watched the building go up. 

He saw the inside before it was even open, just walking in because “that’s just what I do.” A month after the Cancer Collaborative opened in 2017, Ulappa finished his first round of treatment at the center. Upon finishing, he was invited to choose a pottery mug. 

From a lump of clay

Patients who complete a round of treatment at the Cancer Collaborative have been receiving handmade mugs from Astoria Dragon Kiln since 2011. The first batch of 100 mugs lasted a year and a Ken Ulappahalf. This year, CMH asked the kiln to make 500 — just for 2019.

This increase is a reflection of how many more patients the Cancer Collaborative now cares for, says Oncology Infusion Nurse Jessica Rasmussen. The mugs are created by local potters Richard Rowland, a professional artist and art instructor at Clatsop Community College, and Randy McClelland, CMH’s Director of Strategic Initiatives. 

“The cups are made with our patients in mind, from the colors to the textures that they use on them,” Rasmussen says. “There is a reason for all of it.”

Rasmussen says the mugs emphasize the Planetree philosophy of patient-centered care. Caring for the whole person isn’t just about giving them the medication they need, she explains. When a patient receives their mug, caregivers gather with them to celebrate and acknowledge their journey. At that time, patients also receive information on follow-up support, how to check in with the triage nurse, and other helpful resources. 

For those who have had frequent treatment at the Cancer Collaborative, it can be hard to go back to daily life, Rasmussen says. Applauding the end of their treatment physically and symbolically with a mug and offering post-treatment care is important. 

“We want to make sure they know we’re still here, still supporting them,” she says. “Even if they just want to come in and say ‘hello.'”

Lessons in flexibility

Ulappa’s connection with the clay mugs began long before he chose his. At the start of his treatment in the Cancer Collaborative, he noticed the “cool bling” displayed on shelves in the Infusion Center. The mugs are carefully arranged on shelves built into the wall — evenly spaced and facing the same direction. 

Ulappa says he made a pest of himself to some of the CMH caregivers. He’d walk by, clinking the mugs together and rearranging the directions the handles were facing. When caregivers said they didn’t look right, he’d respond that he was teaching them flexibility. 

“Faces used to turn purple when they saw me coming,” Ulappa says. “I had six months of messing with them, and it used to drive them crazy. 

Ken UlappaThey started laughing about it, and I’d say, ‘Look at the growth you have going on.'”

In reality, the caregivers and patients he has come to know during treatment have become a second family to Ulappa. He received his own mug after his 34th round of chemotherapy. Having handled so many mugs during his treatment, he didn’t have a specific cup in mind when treatment ended. He knew that by the time he was done, mugs would’ve come and gone. 

“I found the one that felt right in my hand,” he says. “I liked the color and the design.”

‘Game on’

Ulappa continues to get treatment at the Cancer Collaborative, having started another round of chemotherapy in February. With the cancer under control for now, he says using his mug helps keep him in the present. 

“Slow down, savor the moments that you have,” he advises. “Because in the end, no one is going to avoid death.”

To him, there’s no mystery about the end of the process.

“Either I’ll kill it or it’ll kill me,” he explains. “Game on.”