Control freak who?

“Knock, knock.”

“Who’s there?”

“Control freak. Now, you say, ‘Control freak,who?'”

When I first heard that joke, it took me about ten minutes to get it. That created much merriment for my family, who know that I’m the sort of person who alphabetizes spices during a disagreement (If I can’t organize my emotional life, how about starting with the kitchen?). They know I’m the sort who will go bananas over every detail of Christmas despite many protestations that, this year, I really will detox from the holiday obsessiveness. They know I can’t sit in the garden for five minutes before jumping up to weed this or trim that.

This week, I realize that all of us who face cancer become control freaks, if only just a little bit.

A dear friend calls a couple days ago. He’s recently been diagnosed with prostate cancer. He makes me realize, suddenly, that that prostate cancer is to men what breast cancer is to women: a scary assault on identity, both sexual and personal. He reminds me of those first weeks and months after diagnosis, when you’re a deer in the headlights, grasping desperately for anything that’s certain. But of course, nothing’s certain.

He doesn’t say too much about the specifics of his case, only that the biopsy seems to show that his sort of prostate cancer may be the more aggressive kind. He’s going to have surgery in about a month. He’s trying to get himself as strong as possible before then: alternating 6-mile runs with weight training. He figures that the better shape he’s in before surgery, the faster he will recover.

If I can’t control this disease that has exploded, unbidden, into my life, at least I can control my muscle tone.

I know another radiation patient who carefully considers everything that she eats. Should she eat green leafy vegetables — high in free radical-fighting antioxidants — if the main point of radiation oncology is to unleash hordes of free radicals upon cancer cells? If she’s having stomach upset, could it be because of the berries she likes so much? Should she give up the berries for stone fruits? Are nuts OK to eat during radiation? Is the nutritionist in the clinic today?

If I can’t control these barrages of photons and electrons that are sapping my energy and burning my skin, at least I can control what I put into my mouth.

I know another breast cancer patient who used to be bartender. She is now a teetotaler. Some will tell you that there’s no safe level of alcohol consumption for breast cancer patients.

If I can’t control my hair falling out, at least I can control my alcohol intake.

Yet another breast cancer patient researches every single twist and turn of her therapy. Husband Pete and I definitely engage in what we call “biblio-therapy” but this friend makes us look down right casual. She knows every statistic, every new study, every risk factor.

If can’t control whether my treatment actually works, at least I can control how much I know about it.

I remember reading “Promise Me,” the memoir of Nancy G. Brinker who founded Susan G. Komen for the Cure, an organization that could fairly be credited for making it OK to mention breast cancer in everyday conversation. I marvel that Brinker could manage to work during chemotherapy. Frankly, at the time that I read the book last fall, I think Brinker just a little bit crazy to go to board meetings while popping anti-nausea meds.

Now, I realize that this is just Brinker’s way of coping: If I can’t control the fact that I am now facing the disease that killed my sister, I can control my work life. I can refuse to let the disease slow me down.

And me? How I do I try to take control? I decide to run the Bay-to-Breakers even though almost every doctor and nurse practitioner cautions that this might not be the best idea. I cycle to most of my radiation appointments, even though, as week follows week, the ride back home becomes more and more difficult and I’m practically spent by the time I roll my bike into the garage.

I’m no different from everyone else: I can’t control cancer. I don’t set silly physical challenges because I think it will put in the fix that saves me from this disease. I do it because I can control something small. Cycling to radiation is something I can achieve. It is something knowable, something I can measure.

And that makes me feel just a little bit better.


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 Control freak who?

  1. Alison Quoyeser says:

    Hi, again.
    I so admire you for running the Bay to Breakers and doing all that cycling, Heather. Plus, maintaining your wonderful blog! Way to go! My control freak behavior is a combination of raking through internet articles and studies on breast cancer treatment and also teaching as long as I could. Thursday was my last day of fourth grade, and Friday was my fourth chemo. I’m a bit worried that without teaching, I’ll become more obsessive about my cancer treatment.

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