We gotta talk

Sitting in chairs. You probably know the phrase from the TV show, “ER.” It’s people waiting for doctors. Or friends and relatives waiting for people who are waiting for doctors. At the NYU Clinical Cancer Center, of course, the chairs are very nice. I’ve mentioned that before. It’s Manhattan, after all. Things are swank and expensive in this city. But even if the chairs are not the molded fiberglass of the famed TV show, it’s still sitting in chairs. People are still sick.

After five sessions in the waiting rooms at NYU, I’m starting to feel like a pro at sitting in chairs. What I can’t get used to is that as you look around the room, you know that almost everyone there has cancer. Young women. Women younger than my 28-year-old stepdaughter, who returned from her around-the-world trip last night. Old women with canes. Women 20 years older than me wearing fabulous diamond rings. Women my age with silk scarves over their bald heads. Women who look like newlyweds, nervously holding their husbands’ hands. Punked out hipsters with tattoos everywhere. Women who look like they shop only at Saks Fifth Avenue and Barney’s and boutiques on Madison Avenue. Slip-of-a-thing women. Huge, abondanza women with breasts as big as my head. These women have nothing in common, except that they all have breast cancer, except they all have a scared look. And almost none of them want to talk.

Except me, of course, I’m probably the only weirdo in the world who approaches having breast cancer as some sort of macabre cocktail party. I do want to chat. I need to chat. Will you chat with me?

I don’t need to even say the question out loud to most of my “pink sisters.” (I already hate that term.) It’s obvious that most of them will answer, “No.” Or, “Leave me alone.” Or, “Can’t you see that I’m not really here?”

But I manage to scare up a few yeses.

While waiting for my first MRI, I sit near this really cool-looking woman who seems to be in her late sixties. She is wearing this amazing gray/black dress that fits close through the bodice, then flounces down her frame like a balloon shade to meet soft-soled combat boots, in July. She wears a necklace that looks like a small, beautiful sea animal that has graciously consented to drape itself around her neck. Her hair is wavy, and reddish-gray. She inhabits her avant garde fashion as if it were the most natural thing in the world. I ask about her necklace. We start chatting.

She’s a jewelry designer. After her MRI, she’s taking some pieces she made recently to be gold plated. She pulls them out of a Ziploc bag in her gargantuan silver bag. They are gorgeous, sort of like braided coral, yet not quite natural, bracelets and rings and chokers. My daughter Erin would love them, I say. I’m not hip enough to wear them, but Erin would love the Cleopatra choker. This woman is so interesting. We talk about creativity and artist retreats and her upcoming jewelry show. She had breast cancer 15 years ago. Now her kidneys are failing and she has a brain lesion. I think she says she’s getting an MRI to figure out the brain problem.

Why do wonderful people like this have to get sick? We meet again in the MRI dressing room, and I share my Valium with the jewelry designer when she asks. The nurse does a “Sargeant Schultz,” and pretends to hear nothing, nothing. (Do people remember “Hogan’s Heroes” anymore?) God bless the nurse.

I tell one of my best college buddies, a doctor specializing in elder care, about this conversation. She tries to shut me down. “No, Heather, you are not to have conversations like this. Talk about the weather. Talk about politics. Do NOT talk about people’s conditions. Do NOT talk about their prognoses. Do NOT think about a brain lesion that might develop 15 years from now. You are going to make yourself nuts.”

But I need to chat. I ignore my dear friend’s advice. Will you chat with me?

The next time, I talk to this nice Italian woman. She’s in her 40s, and she’s waiting for her Dad. They’re Italian, but from South America. Her Dad doesn’t really speak English, she says, in between phone calls to her teenage son to admonish him to stay in the house until she gets home. Her Dad has lung cancer.

“How is he holding up,” I ask. My Dad died from lung cancer.

“Oh, it’s OK,” she says, “We don’t really tell him what’s going on. He doesn’t speak English and that makes it easier. He just thinks he’s having tests. We don’t really tell him that he has cancer.”

I say nothing, but my God. My mother didn’t want to tell my father he was dying. I never agreed with that, but honored it until the last 48 hours. But when my Dad looked scared, and asked me, “How long?”

I whispered, “Not long.”

My Dad seemed calmer after that. He died in his sleep. I gave him the last prescribed shot of morphine, and I am glad that I did. He was ready.

Today, I start chatting with one of the intake receptionists in chairs. They’re whispering about how someone just yelled at them.

“You guys must see it all,” I say with a smile.

“Oh, you have no idea.” one says. “But people deal with all this in different ways. We don’t take it personally.”

Then she tells me a very personal story about how her mother hid her own cancer until the very end.

“She was 40 when she gave birth to me, and she just blamed it all on her aging. ‘Oh, I’m just getting old.’ ‘Oh, it’s just tests.’ She really knew how to manipulate me. She was a master. Then I go to Orlando on vacation and I get this call from the hospital. My mother is in critical condition. I arrive at the hospital and they tell me she has end stage cancer. I never knew until that moment. It started in the breast, but it went everywhere. When I get to heaven, I’m going to tell my mother off for keeping it a secret. I love her, but I’m going to give her a piece of my mind.”

“I’m so sorry,” I say.

“Thank you so much for listening,” the clerk says with feeling.

My mother’s best friend from when I was growing up died of breast cancer. She was a beautiful woman and locked herself in her room and refused to see anyone for the last six months of her life. My mother was devastated.

Come on, pink sisters, we gotta talk.

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About leftbreast

I have had breast cancer. I was diagnosed at 47, and am now 49. I have finished "active treatment," two surgeries, chemo, radiation, monoclonal antibodies. These days, I only take a drug to suppress my uptake of estrogen, since my tumor was highly reactive to that hormone. I have been married to my husband Pete for 21 years. I have a stepdaughter, Maureen, 30, and a daughter, Erin, 10. I've been a freelance magazine journalist for 20-plus years, covering everything from Chinese foreign policy to Catholic nuns to endangered species. I have had a great life. I have lived in Asia and all over the United States. I have spent nights with tree-sitters in Oregon and with astronomers at the Mauna Kea observatory in Hawaii. I've been to a cocktail party on the poopdeck of a British destroyer docked in Shanghai. I've taken the bus to Tibet, and tramped through the cloud forests of Panama with biologists. A magazine sent me on a raft trip down the Colorado through the Grand Canyon; another sent me to cooking school for a week. I have spent time with celebrities, presidents and heroin dealers. I love my work. I have a loving, supportive family and more friends than I probably deserve. I have had the space and time to camp, ski, cycle, garden, cook and spoil my pets (an Australian shepherd, a German shepherd and a tabby cat). If it all ended tomorrow, I would have to say that it has been a really, really good ride. When I was in thick of treatment, I was simply fighting for more time. Now, I'm trying to connect the experience of cancer with the rest of my life, with the time that's been won. I hope the cancer never comes back, but if it does, I'll be ready. That's what this blog is about.
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2 Responses to We gotta talk

  1. Catherine says:

    Good for you, Heather. Talk away. (Many survivors are very anti-pink by the way–and who chose that color for us anyway? Why not fighting purple, or brilliant sapphire? Why pink? Are we baby girls? But I digress.)

    Just sent you an email. xo C

  2. Michael Fawcett says:

    Heather, you truly are gifted and I know your blog will help so many. God bless!

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