Taking stock

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.


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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5 Responses to Taking stock

  1. And I’m so glad you’re writing about it and sharing with others. I can’t tell you how much I get from your writing. Deep thanks.

  2. Sarah Goodyear says:

    Tremendous post. So glad to hear everything you have to say.

  3. May I reprint your article on Taking Stock for my readers on No Boobs About It? I will credit you and give a link to your site.

    Having had breast cancer twice, I appreciate what you are sharing in your posts and I think much of my readership will also identify and benefit from what you have written.



  4. Catherine says:

    Ugh. I stick my head in the sand with the “breast cancer is never really over” part. In so many ways I don’t think about breast cancer anymore, and in other ways, it’s always there. Especially the Her2 factor. Why can’t they give us Herceptin boosters every 5 years or so? We stay on the aromatase inhibitors for 5 yrs., now possibly extended to 10 yrs.–why not additional Herceptin somewhere down the line? I am so thankful not to have to experience the mammogram suspense; but I do still miss my originals.

    Heather, I’m glad you’ve found some fellow survivors to hang out with. I think it’s good for the soul to have those connections. They really get it.

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