Lately, several women tell me that they feel like they just can’t deal with people who have not had breast cancer. Healthy people don’t understand the fear, the fatigue, the hassle, the financial strain, the emotional fallout, the assault on one’s sexuality and identity. It takes so much effort to explain those things again and again. Unintentionally stupid comments from friends and family demand generosity and forgiveness. It’s hard enough to fight a scary disease without also endlessly translating.
I feel for my friends who feel this way. I remember exactly where I was when suddenly, a bright, white line appeared between me and the healthy world.
My primary care physician calls about my biopsy results in the late morning, July 15, 2010. I am doing a “shift” as a check-out person at our food co-op in Brooklyn, now much-missed.
“I think you’d better come in,” the doctor says as I pull someone’s canned organic tomatoes over the scanner.
“It’s bad, isn’t it?” I say.
“I think you’d better come in,” she repeats.
Somehow, I finish checking out that last order of groceries and turn to my deputy “squad leader” Shannon. Why do co-ops of whatever stripe always use such militaristic lingo? Shannon, a lovely woman with wild curly hair and a toddler, had had breast cancer a few years earlier. We discuss my biopsy at the beginning of my shift. Still sore from the procedure two days earlier, I’m not sure I’ll make it through the shift. Now, I know I’m not going to make it.
“I’ve gotta go,” I tell her. “It’s the doctor.”
“Just go. Do what you need to do. Don’t worry!” she says. “They just cut it out. A little piece. Then, you go on!”
I call my husband Pete. I get the car out of the garage. It’s only 10-12 blocks to the doctor’s office, but I’m too freaked out about my personal situation to walk. My mind buzzes as I drive south, toward the doctor. Just one thought repeats over and over: “I have cancer. I have cancer. I have cancer. I have cancer.” The bright, white line appears then. It is still there. Perhaps it will be there, always.
But I don’t want to stay on my side of the line. Even when the effort overwhelms, even when people’s ignorance is most annoying, even when I feel too tired and angry to explain, I want to reach across the divide, to friends and family and strangers who don’t know the first thing about breast cancer. The whole point of fighting this disease is to rejoin the world, and the world is about so much more than breast cancer. Sure, the fight against breast cancer is difficult, and important, but so are many things completely unrelated: the struggle of a friend’s divorce, the triumph of a relative’s promotion, a neighbor’s new garden, a kid’s spelling bee, a dog’s joyous leap toward a tennis ball, a region’s environmental battles, an Egyptian colleague’s experience as the Middle East awakens.
Breast cancer will always be part of my world, not necessarily so for everyone else. This point of view is not virtue. Actually, it is selfish. The bright, white line remains. If everyone and everything focused on that divide, I’m not sure I could bear it.