Variables upon variables

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.


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 Variables upon variables

  1. James Russell says:

    I was thinking of you because I missed our long sessions of psyching out the scattershot mind of Michael Gallis and there you were on Linked-In with your blog, which I somehow had not noticed. (I’m not so good with the social-networking world).

    Of course I could not stop reading your touching, horrifying, beautiful blog. You make real what has been a slightly distant abstraction. (Strangely four of my women cousins have gotten one kind of a cancer or another. They have all done well. Their numerous brothers nada, and nothing in my family, thankfully.)

    But I’m just sending you the warmest recovery wishes, and would be thrilled to touch base when you are feeling up to it. I’m fine; little has changed, and I have the same email. Much, much love.

    Jim Russell

    James Russell

    • leftbreast says:

      Jim – What a kind, wonderful note. I, too, sometimes miss those crazy sessions with Gallis. He called a few months ago, when he heard about the cancer thing. We talked about that a bit, and then about the usual things. Pete’s coordinating the states and muni team for Bloomberg out here. The weather’s nicer, it’s home. I would love to touch base. Feeling stronger every day. Actually, did my first workout preparing for Bay to Breakers. I am SO out of shape. But that will change. Hoping you’re still loving New York, you seem to always have your finger on the pulse, and do it with such style.

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