I should have known not to go for the mammogram in January.
Granted, that had not been the plan. I found the breast lump in November of 2007 and had been deep in negotiations with the cancer center since then in an attempt to get squeezed in (bad pun intentional; sorry) for an appointment when there was no time open. Then again, maybe it’s sort of OK that the whole thing ended up unfolding in January—keeps the crap contained.
At one point, January was a celebration-filled month for my family, with my mom’s birthday at the beginning and mine at the very end. But then my vivacious, joyful, deeply beloved mother was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, in January, shortly before I turned 12. A Stage 4 recurrence was discovered three Januaries later, and she died the following January, a week to the day before I turned 16. Tears poured over my Januaries from then on.
Did I think I had cancer, at age 40, in January of 2008? I can’t remember clearly anymore. I know I was scared, for sure. The lump I’d discovered was something that could well mean cancer, and that seemed more than frightening enough. Whatever I’d thought, I remember my utter shock when I received the breast cancer diagnosis. I was still lying on the exam table (results for the lump took a few days, but results for a lymph node they biopsied at the same time were ready in minutes), and if I had not been lying down, I might have crumpled to the floor. Invasive ductal carcinoma, somewhere around Stage 2. I had not become a yoga-doing vegetarian years before in order to prevent cancer, but I did think that my diet and my yoga, my overall fitness and sometimes annoyingly healthy habits (yes, thanks for asking, I totally do mind if you smoke) might offer some protection. But my mom had been horribly young for her diagnosis, and there I was, almost a decade younger.
My first thought: Take it back. Unsay those words, and let me get out of here and get on with life as though this never happened. Second thought (more a terrifying sense, really, of being pulled away): Everyone in this room is on one side of a divide, and I, suddenly, am alone on the other. I need a bridge—where is the bridge?
Turns out, nothing takes us right back to the place where we were before we heard the words of our diagnosis. With successful treatment we get our lives back, but they aren’t the exact same lives. And in some ways, that can be a tremendous loss. But in other ways, it isn’t.
People sometimes say things along the lines of how having cancer must have been the biggest challenge of my life. No. The cancer I had—which, to my eternal gratitude, is (according to any existing means of detection) no longer present in my body—was not my biggest challenge to date; my mother’s cancer was. I was very young. I had no idea what was going on, no clue of what to do or how to help. My best friend and life guide was being taken from my side. I couldn’t stop it, and I didn’t know how to bring comfort to her or to myself. Her having cancer, and the chaotic and isolating aftermath of her loss, broke my heart so deeply that for a long time I was sure all the rest of my days would be ruled by that sorrow.
Make no mistake, my own cancer experience hasn’t been what I’d call easy. Chemo sucks, surgery sucks, and radiation sucks (though I worked, did yoga, went to parties, and generally lived me life all through them; maybe those healthy habits of mine did some good after all). Doctors’ offices suck, as do waiting rooms and all their attendant waiting. Long-term, post-treatment drugs targeted to recurrence prevention bring side effects that suck, and the simple act of taking these drugs, when active treatment is finished, can really suck too (“I can’t believe I have to take a pill every day for years,” said my friend Drea. “Like a sick person!”). Never-ending bills for appointments, prescriptions, new scans, and the like suck hugely. And “sucks” can hardly describe the residual fear and anger that can come in waves.
But: I’m the one making decisions this time. I do know what’s going on, and I can decide how to handle it. There’s strength in that. And: I look back on what I did, and I’m impressed. I practiced my Japanese with my Japan-born nurse on my first day of chemo (just a few words, but considering that I was so scared I could barely speak in any language, not too bad). I took a yoga class, had my teacher cut my falling-out hair, and then went to a park and threw it into the April grass as bird-nest material. (I cried the whole time, but still.) I matched my head scarves to my shoes. I joined in a tree-planting project in a park near my home in the middle of chemo, shoveling and dragging wheelbarrows (now, I love to see how the trees have grown since then). Who’s that in a blonde wig (my hair is brown) and high heels at a friend’s wedding? Right, me. My inner Powerhouse Girl made a strong showing during my treatment; and I am very fond of her.
Most important of all: This time I can be there for others. I can be a source of information, comfort, and even strength. I can say, “I did it, and here I am. My hair is longer than it was when I was diagnosed, and I have learned a lot along the way, so let’s discuss your plans.” My involvement in support and advocacy groups such as the Young Survival Coalition, SHARE, and Project LEAD means a tremendous amount to me. And whatever I get to offer, be it a discussion of treatment choices, a loan of the scarves I used, or a hand to hold in the dark, I know it comes from my mom and me working together. I can support others in the ways I wanted so much to support her; and I can feel her spirit, through me, doing what she would do if she were here.
Lynn, I avoided writing this essay because I didn’t know how to end it. I don’t have things all worked out, at all, and some days I don’t think I have anything worked out
whatsoever. But I can say that living my life through cancer treatment, and being there for others who are doing the same, has dug up in me renewed strength and resolve. I will never (ever!) be one of those who describes having had cancer as “a gift” or any such thing. But I’m grateful for my health, and I’m grateful for the abilities that all of this has reminded me I have. Since treatment, I’ve started a little not-for-profit (the Many Hands Collective) and begun work on a documentary I’d had in my head for years. These days my inner Powerhouse Girl is accessible to me most of the time.
I’ve experienced far too many losses of beloved peers in my community since my own diagnosis. (Talk about powerhouses: Some of the vibrant, beautiful, and powerful souls I’ve ever seen have shown themselves during struggles with cancer.) Bad news and loss crush my heart anew whenever they appear. But now: No matter what, and even though there is too much I cannot fix, I can find ways to be of actual help. And I have no words to express just how much that helps me.
Love to your whole household, Lynn. Tell the cats that Pam and kitties Martin and Harrison say rock on.