Cancer is not contagious; it only seemed that way when I started to recover from my breast cancer surgery, chemo and radiation therapy. Whenever I heard that someone had died, I would say, "Cancer, right?" and nine times out of ten, I was right. I'd just nod, all smug and everything.
Then I would start ghoulishly toting them up: my grandfather died of cancer, my dad died of cancer, my high school boyfriend, my great-grandmother on my mother's side, Elizabeth Edwards, Frank Zappa, Ty Cobb. I seemed to have drawn a blank when it came to people who survived it.
YOU CAN SURVIVE
I did, however, have a next-door neighbor who survived breast cancer. Her husband, ironically, is an ocology nurse. It didn't seem right that she would get breast cancer, now does it? But she did, and she carried it off like a prom queen. She went off to surgery one summery afternoon and came back in a day or two with two new breasts and her mother in the car. She waved and smiled.
"You're back!" I was flabbergasted. In my opinion, a woman doesn't go off and have the top half of her body completely remodeled and come home in a good mood.
But I never heard her complain. She talked about her dicey prognosis as though she and I were discussing sports. Her painkilling medicine came in a lollipop, and she looked girlishly innocent, wandering the backyard, licking her candy. Her beautiful curly black hair disappeared and she wrapped her head in bright scarves. Her children hung to her skirts.
The months went by peppered with additional surgery and more meds and dire news, but she never lost hope; she never looked glum.
By the time I got my diagnosis, her hair had grown back and she was chipper as ever. I ran next-door to tell them my news. She and her husband reacted matter-of-factly. I had cancer. Big deal. Not to worry. They were so used to it; you'd think I had said I had a cold. She gave me one of those stupid cards that play music when you open it; mine played Gloria Gaynor's song "I Will Survive." I still have that card, and believe it or not, after two years, the darn thing still plays.
And my next-door-neighbor is alive and kicking.
LUCK AND PATIENCE
I was kind of ashamed of the way I handled everything, weeping and sagging and wishing to die. The only time I kept up a good front was in the classroom where I teach middle school. I couldn't let my students see me sweat. If one out of every 8 women will get breast cancer in her lifetime, then chances are someone in their lives has it or will have it, and I wanted them to see that I was going to be okay.
Slowly, I was peeking out from under my blankets and connecting with the rest of the world. The cancer shook out my priorities like a freshly-laundered sheet. Nothing was as important as it once was. I lost my car keys? So what. I had a spare set. I was late for dinner? Start without me.
I shrugged off things that would have bothered me before, but I was acutely aware of the cancer all around me. I was attuned to it; I could feel it everywhere, lurking in bushes. I wanted to ward it off, but there is no agreed-upon regime that prevents cancer. Websites, hospital pamphlets, books, and magazine articles recommend the kind of life and diet everyone should adopt. "Cancer does what it wants," I remember one of my doctors saying. I was not looking forward to my follow-up mammogram. I wanted it over with, but there was nothing I could do but wait. Sometimes cancer comes back after years.
I wore the beautiful necklace that Dr. Edelson's wife Ruth had designed. It was a delicate drop of silver in the shape of a dendritic cell, the white blood cell that works overtime fighting cancer. It lay smoothly on my skin and I rubbed it with thumb and forefinger during the day, imagining the microscopic power of white blood cells. It worked as a talisman for me.
A few months after my hair grew back, the French teacher stopped me in the copy room at school. "I just became a member of your club," she said stone-faced. "I have breast cancer."
I held her in my arms and tried to exude the same courage that my next-door-neighbor did. Then I called Ruth and said I needed another necklace.
Next up: CHAPTER 14: New Hair.
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