Yesterday, I go to an education session about the gynecological issues relevant to breast cancer “survivors” (still hate that term, but can’t think of another). It’s part of study to gauge if patients are willing to do these group sessions so that docs can go into depth once, rather than repeating themselves hurriedly to patients, one by one. Six of us sit in a room with a UCSF professor and one of her residents. We learn about the pros and cons of hormone therapies and how different drugs work. We learn about the risks of causing other problems while treating our breast cancer: small risk of uterine cancer with one drug, ovarian cysts and fibroids with another. Other things we need to look out for: vaginal dryness so severe that it makes walking uncomfortable, osteoporosis, bone aches, problems with sexuality, hot flashes. For every plus there must also be a minus.
After an incredibly informative hour, we sit around in the conference room as the doctors then do individual exams, two by two. We start talking, as breast cancer patients tend to do. When were you diagnosed? What happened? How are you now?
One woman, 41, says she finished chemotherapy last August. She used up her vacation time for her surgery. So she worked through chemotherapy. Well, she worked when she could. The chemo brought her white blood cell counts so low that she was hospitalized for six days at a time. This happened twice. She has a 2-year-old and an 11-year-old. “The doctors kept telling me I should not get close to my 2-year-old,” she says. “You know how toddlers are: all germs. He’d give me a cold. That would lead to high fever. Then I’d end up in the hospital. It was really hard on my husband, and on my older son. Luckily, I’ve been at my company for 10 years. They were understanding. And I’m a technical writer, so I can do a lot of my work at home. Oh, there’s my turn. Good luck.”
I can’t imagine working through chemo. I can’t imagine having a toddler through chemo. I can’t imagine how bad it must feel to have white cell counts that low.
Then there are only two of us left, waiting for our exams.
The other woman is older, I’m guessing early sixties. She’s knitting a scarf for her daughter, who’s a student at Sarah Lawrence College in New York. Her daughter was five when she was first diagnosed. “It really traumatized her. I lost my hair, I lost my eyelashes and eyebrows. I looked like an animal,” she says. “It still traumatizes my daughter. We still talk about it all the time.”
We talk about how everyone gets something—some hardship, some problem—how sometimes kids are just not set up to weather the particular traumas that life dishes out to them. She’s trained as a lawyer, but she doesn’t work now. “I need to take a nap every couple of hours,” she explains. “You just can’t practice law that way. I had a recurrence. They said I didn’t have long to live. But I had a stem cell transplant, and here I am. So that’s good. Here’s my turn. Good luck to you.”
Good luck, I say, counting my blessings.