You can lead a horse to water

I’ll never forget the first days and weeks after I was diagnosed with breast cancer. The outpouring of friends and family, and friends of friends and family, just blow me away.

But the breast cancer survivors are incredible: I email a dear friend about my diagnosis. Within five minutes, his sister in Los Angeles, who’d survived a double mastectomy and chemo, is calling. Other friends who’d had breast cancer answer my questions and offer to do, whatever, whenever. Just call. Just let us know.

I will always be in the debt of these women who answered my questions, who rushed in when I needed it and held back when they saw I just couldn’t handle any more.

So now, I’m the breast cancer survivor and breast cancer has reached into my household yet again. As I wrote in my last post, one of my bedridden mother’s caregivers has breast cancer. I just found out this morning that she has had her mastectomy. She’s in the hospital now. I figured something was up because her older sister has been covering her shifts for a couple days.

When I learn of her diagnosis, I want to shower this woman and her sister, my mother’s other caregiver, with information. I write down lists. I give them booklets. I ask them questions. I urge them to get a second opinion and to be aggressive with their insurance company. These women are wonderful; I don’t what we would do without them. I want them to have the best. I want them to live long and prosper.

I’m still not sure what sort of breast cancer we’re talking about. Estrogen reactive? Progesterone reactive? Her2 positive? Inflammatory? Triple negative? Invasive or in situ? Stage I, II, or III? Who knows!

The older sister tells me this morning that she doesn’t know if there are any lymph nodes involved. I smile and nod, but I want to scream when I hear this. They’re supposed to do the pathology on the lymph nodes DURING surgery. That way, they’ll know if they need to take out more nodes. This has huge implications for how her case will go. The more lymph nodes are involved, the more serious the case. That will determine what sort of chemo she will have, and whether radiation might also be indicated.

“Well,” the healthy sister says. “We just have to wait for the doctors. The surgeon and the pathologist will have to put their heads together. They will let us know when they are ready.”

I smile again. And again, I want to scream, “You need to take charge! You need to ask questions! Why don’t you know any details? Why won’t you tell me?”

But I don’t. I know that culture, and economics and a thousand other things mean that it will go how it will go. I cannot control their reaction.

The toughest thing about being a survivor is that you can’t make another woman face her breast cancer in the way that you did. You just open the door. Call me. Whatever I can do.

Or not.


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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