Because I have long recognized the Universe has a strange sense of humor, I was not surprised when, as a writer, my fate hung on a conjunction.
In late August, my doctor entered the room talking, “I was so afraid your biopsy would show that your cancer had returned,” she said. I expected her next word to be “but,” as in, “but I was wrong.” Instead she said, “and” followed by “I was right.”
I shouldn’t have been shocked, but I was floored. One biopsy had come back inconclusive but suggestive of cancer. Against all reason, I expected the second one to be negative. It has been 17 years since I was first diagnosed; it seemed unlikely I would have a recurrence at this point.
But — there’s that word again — the cancer is back. Same location and metastasized to my sternum.
Looking back I played the scene as Susan Sarandon in “Stepmom”: strong on the outside while falling apart on the inside. My doctor teared up; I teared up. I said something ridiculous about pulling on my big-girl pants (I had never once used that phrase seriously) and going forward with my life.
I can’t explain it, but after I left her office, I found myself thinking of Lou Gehrig’s farewell speech: “ ... today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of this earth.” I felt incredibly lucky on one of the worst days of my life. Lucky that I have had my life and lucky that I have more time. How much depends on which doctor you talk to, but the cancer, caught as a fluke, can be slowed.
Though I’m no Pollyanna, I recognize the advances being made in breast cancer treatment, with new drugs being introduced each year, and I have hope. There are also times when I’m scared and sad. Insomnia has become my new best friend.
Having held myself up as an example of someone who has “beaten” cancer, I feel like I am letting people down. It made me happy to give people hope, and I hesitated to “come out” with my latest diagnosis. If I withheld that information, however, it would be dishonest.
I don’t think a recurrence this far out is common. I suspect other health issues have weakened my immune system leaving me susceptible. Breast cancer is a tricky devil.
Unfortunately, once cancer comes into the picture, people treat you differently. It’s only natural, and no matter how much you wish otherwise, you can’t go back to the day before your diagnosis when everything was “normal.”
I hate it, but I imagine everything I write from now on will be colored by the fact I have cancer. Please try to get past that. Pity is not helpful, really, but prayers and positive energy are appreciated.
I promise this column will not become an endless gripe fest, and I promise to be honest. If I’m getting sicker, I’ll tell you, but until you hear it from me, assume I am just fine.
You may wonder why I chose the holiday season to talk about cancer. As too many families know, life goes on despite the lights and tinsel. Bad things do happen during the holidays, and a lot of people are trying to cope amid the tra-la-la-ing. I’m there with you, wishing you hope and faith and good days to come.
Jan Hearne can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.