A Bright White Line

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.


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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8 Responses to A Bright White Line

  1. Wendy says:

    Remember Kubler-Ross and her seven stages? I rather think those apply to our dealings with many other life-changing events, and sadly I see many of my chronically ill and disabled friends isolating themselves with anger at all who are healthy—not out of jealousy, but from a sense that those others have no idea what a chronically ill person deals with every day, for example the finality of knowing that it’s never getting any better. But that isolation can be as toxic as illness, and reaching across that divide is good for both sides.

    • leftbreast says:

      Wendy, I’ve seen some critiques of Kubler-Ross lately, but I think her stages are a good way to think about any trauma. Certainly, fear and anger and denial etc. are all part of the process. I guess the trick is not to get stuck in one of those stages. I do think that, as you say, isolation can be as toxic as illness. That’s the great gift of social media, and of blogging. It takes the edge off isolation.

  2. Wonderful post, Heather. There was a lovely blog for years on NPR written by a journalist named Leroy Sievers who was fighting cancer; he frequently used the term Cancer World — always capped — to acknowledge the fact that once you entered that world you never really went back. He lost his battle with cancer a couple of years back, but his concept of “cancer world” has stayed with me. Even though I haven’t had cancer myself, so many of my family and friends have and the experience of caring for my father during his cancer was so intense that I feel like I have a half-open door into that world myself.

    • leftbreast says:

      Melanie, I think you’re right, you never really go back. Nursing my Dad was super intense as well. You do have the door half-open, may you never have to go through the door all the way!

  3. sheba says:

    heather, love your outlook. though i haven’t had cancer, too many around me have and i truly believe that their positive outlooks have helped them stay on this side of the line.

  4. sheba says:

    heather, you are an inspiration! i truly believe that a positive outlook has helped my loved ones battling cancer get through it easier. i hope you stay on this side of the line. [p.s. i tried posting before, but i don’t see my comment, so please forgive me if this is a double-post!]

    • leftbreast says:

      Thanks. Actually, I don’t think a positive attitude will make much difference at all in the outcome of my breast cancer, and wrote about that in an earlier post, “To Grump or Not to Grump.” Biology matters a lot more than my mental state, alas. However, having a positive attitude does make life worth living, and that is enough.

  5. Heather,

    Another amazing, powerful, mature and beautiful insight, for those with cancer and those who don’t have cancer (or at least yet).

    – A devoted reader!

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