Drawing by Allie Brosh, blogging at Hyperbole and a Half
Still Here To Bitch About It
Two years ago today, four words changed my life. Those words were, “Your biopsy is positive.” Words like that are very powerful. I wouldn’t be blogging if they weren’t. But in all honestly, I’ve heard a lot of other words in my life that have been a lot more immediately heart-breaking. Words like, “We found your mother; she’s dead.” Or, “I can’t be with you anymore.” Or, “Nancy won’t be coming in to work today. Her son went to that Station Nightclub that burned down last night and he never came home.” Or even, “A second plane has crashed into the World Trade Center.” All of these words took my breath away, altered the path of my life in some fashion, and left me with profound sorrow for months to come. But being told I had breast cancer didn’t break my heart. It broke something; it just wasn’t my heart.
There was nothing I could do to bring my mother back or to stop the 9/11 tragedy. But finding out I had cancer was just the beginning of a long journey, one that required me to chart a course of action. I would hear a lot of words over the coming weeks, advising me to endure one misery or another, a lot of them surprisingly unhelpful. A lot of the words I really needed to hear remained unspoken. Words like, “We’re actually going to cut off half of your breast, but we’re calling it a lumpectomy so that you’ll be horrified several weeks later when the swelling finally goes down.” And, “We’re going to fry you with ionizing radiation that might not in fact stop your cancer from coming back, but which will in fact leave you with permanent scar tissue.” And certainly no one said, “We’re about to change your life permanently, destroy your energy for the next two years, and force you to stop working full-time forever. But we’re not going warn you of these possibilities beforehand or help you deal with them afterward.” However unpleasant it would have been to hear these words or words like them, not hearing them prevented me from making fully informed decisions about my treatment. Instead, I was denied the opportunity to make different choices, choices that might have lessened the impact cancer has had on the rest of my life.
Do I sound ungrateful? I’m not. I’m very grateful to have a “rest of my life.” But I really had no idea what I was in for two years ago. I had no idea that I would only just now be starting to feel like myself again. I had no idea that I would only now be able to get through a day of work without having to collapse for the rest of the night at the end of it. I had no idea that radiation does not, apparently, kill off the cells that initiate breast cancer tumors, but it did leave me with lasting cording and shoulder pain and scarring on the outside of my lung. I had no idea that people who don’t have chemo end up with the loss of brain function usually called ‘chemo brain,’ or that there is something called cancer-related fatigue that is widely prevalent and poorly understood. Or that I would have to give up a full 20% of my income because of all of the above, but at least still be able to work at all.
When I’m feeling more philosophical, I sometimes think that if there is a Grand Design, then perhaps I was guided down this path of unnecessary shock and awe as ineptly as I was precisely in order to get me pissed off enough to start this blog. It has given me reason to try, as a writer and health care clinician, to ensure in my own small way that other cancer patients are not treated so inadequately. When I hear from someone who has read one of my posts and thanked me for explaining something her doctors haven’t told her, I feel like I’ve managed to turn the sour parts of my experience into something useful. And that helps me recover from it, bit by bit. But I wouldn’t have been able to heal at all if there weren’t other people out there who did the same for me.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. I would not and could not have survived this entire sleigh ride had it not been for the dozens of women and men I’ve met in cyberspace on cancer forums and blogs. Before cancer, I did my social networking the old-fashioned way, i.e., mostly in person. But when I signed up with the online community at BreastCancer.org, No Surrender Breast Cancer Foundation, and other cancer networks, I discovered what is best about us humans. I cannot overstate the difference it has made in my life these last two years, and continues to make, to encounter the generosity, candor, humor, righteousness, wit, empathy and affection of all the women and men who shared all that and more with me and others in peer forums and on blogs. Thank you and bless you all. So many of you have become lifelong friends. It’s because of you that I am still here, with some sanity intact. It’s because of you that I scour the web, and sign up for research journals, and slog through articles and studies to understand some piece of this experience and bring that understanding back to you.
Because when you are fighting cancer, the most powerful and poignant four words you can hear are, “You are not alone.”
P.S. Thanks, Coco, for “Snoopy’s Happy Dance.”
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