Sunday, I go to my first meeting of Bay Area Young Survivors (BAYS), a support, information and fundraising organization for younger women in the San Francisco area who have breast cancer. At 47, 48 in a few weeks, I think it’s questionable whether I’m “young.” And since I started chemo and became the hot flash queen, I can’t even claim that I’m “pre-menopausal.”
Even so, one of the BAYS organizers is kind enough to organize a “welcome” lunch for me in early October, and I follow the Yahoo group posts every day. I mean to go to their meetings, which are held the first Sunday of every month. I mean to go to their holiday party in mid-December. But each time a BAYS event starts blinking on my iPhone, I am either sick from chemo, or overwhelmed and exhausted, or in the process of moving and unpacking.
So finally I get my act together in 2011, and even then, I’m late to the meeting. I don’t really have a good excuse for being late, just the usual case of “one-more-thing-itis.” Luckily for me, the BAYS women, I think there are about 100 members, seem to be an understanding and forgiving group. The dozen or so in attendance make space for me, disrupt whatever they’ve been talking about so that I can “check in.”
They make me think. I’ve been thinking about that 90 minutes for the last several days. Obviously, I can’t reveal anything specific or personal about the other women. Suffice it to say that they make me realize that I’ve been so embroiled in the hurly-burly of treatment and researching the science and moving and the holidays that I haven’t dared look at some of the scarier aspects of breast cancer:
Breast cancer makes life seem more urgent. It makes women re-evaluate who they are and what they want out of work, relationships and everything else. It tosses everything up in the air, chips fall where they may. It causes chaos, breaks up marriages, inspires career changes, daring changes of domicile. And yet many would say this is a blessing, a kick in the pants to reject the passive and seize the day.
Breast cancer creates a strange country, a place both separate and intertwined with the rest of the world. In this place, you can be bald and beautiful (not my experience, but I observe it Sunday). You understand that partners and friends may fall away, unable to cope with your illness. You can discuss the ins and outs of various chemo regimens and breast implants and radiation schedules without being a bore, or worse, someone’s nightmare. Here, you laugh at the well-meaning, but ill-advised things that friends and family say, like “Since your Dad DIED of cancer, you must feel AWFUL about your diagnosis.” or “You may have lost a breast, but at least you’re alive.” You know that none of the women in this odd place need to be reminded of things like that. You know that losing a breast still hurts, physically and psychically, even if it means you live to fight another day.
Breast cancer is never really over. This isn’t to say that everything in life has to be about cancer from now on. But Her-2 positive cancers, like mine, can recur up to 15 years later. For the rest of our lives, the regular mammogram will be our own personal suspense novel.
Breast cancer stories follow a pattern. We all think we’re on a special path, completely unique. In some ways, of course, that’s true. But so many have trod this path before—1 in 8 women will get breast cancer—how could there not be commonalities? That’s why it’s such a blessing to face this road with others. I’m glad the BAYS women will let me walk alongside them.