Beating breast cancer was only the beginning. My toughest fight was yet to come.
By Suzanne Strempek Shea
"Can we see you for a moment?" The nurse was calling this across the waiting room. To me.
My heart lurched. I'd just had my annual mammogram, and it was four years since that very same nurse had asked to see me again-four years since I'd been diagnosed with breast cancer.
Suddenly, I was back on the ultrasound table. The technician pointed to what looked like a planetsized mass on the computer screen, assuring me that it was probably just a harmless cyst. While she went to get the radiologist, I stared at the planet onscreen and battled worries the size of a universe. Four years of trying to put cancer behind me evaporated instantly as I faced the possibility that the disease might be back.
I've never been one of those survivors I both admire and resent who says, "That's over and done with. I never even think about it!" I've thought about it-a lot. And I'm angry. Breast cancer jumped out of nowhere in the summer of 2000 to overturn my neat little life. I had no family history of the disease; at 41, I was lit, had been a vegetarian for ii years, had walked three miles every morning, and had never lit up anything more evil than lemon-scented votives. I'd done everything you're supposed to do to prevent the disease.
A few days before that first diagnosis, I showed two friends my just-finished novel and gushed with joy about how lucky I was: "This is what I get to do for a living in the house I love." There, with my sweet husband and faithful dog, I felt wrapped in a cocoon of comfort and love. I couldn't think of anyone more fortunate.
Then doctors delivered the news. They'd caught it early-a stage-one tumor. But I had cancer, a disease that could kill me. Suddenly, it was as if a big stopwatch were swinging over my head, and I -couldn't keep the questions from coming fast and furious: Why was this happening to me? How should I be living? What should I be doing that I'm not? What am I doing that I shouldn't?
I was freaked out-and I was angry-but still, I tried to count my blessings. I bought a T-shirt with the
Slogan JUST GLAD TO BE HERE. That same week, I had a lumpectomy, and a month later, I started six-and-a-half weeks of radiation therapy. In November, after my last treatment, I drove home wondering what was next.
Before cancer, I might have imagined that moment would send a person running through a field of daisies, planning a trip around the world, going crazy with happiness. But now I know better. Shortly after my last treatment, I met a woman from France who remarked on the pink breast cancer ribbon I'd pinned on my raincoat lapel. When I told her that I was a survivor, she asked, "Life must be so beautiful now, no?" I answered yes, and then no, and tried to explain that once treatment is over, you're at your most vulnerable. As awful as having cancer can be, while in the midst of it, you're doing something aimed at killing the disease. It's clear there's a task to be accomplished, and that's reassuring. At the conclusion, there's nothing to do except wonder how to live this life you got to keep, how to prevent a recurrence so you can keep it longer.
Most people coast through their days until they hit a wall. Then, when reality is in their face, there's no choice but
to look at the state of their life. I began to weigh the amount of time and effort I put into anything that wasn't truly important. I chucked my hair dye and cosmetics, no longer wanting to be someone I wasn't. I cleared my house of clutter and pared down my possessions. If something wasn't vital, such as food, or utilitarian-such as a blanketI didn't buy it. In case I decided to pick up and run from the next scary thing, I wanted to travel light.
I also made emotional changes, channeling my anger into positive action. I acknowledged my tendency to be a doormat-not speaking up when I was wronged, never wanting to cause a fuss and I began sticking up for myself. I demanded an apology from the snotty toll-taker who ignored me and chatted on her cell phone as I sat there waiting, and I turned down the invitation of a relative whose holiday gatherings had always been more boring obligation than heartfelt celebration. And I let myself be angry when it felt right-as it did the day I heard a sitcom starlet tell a TV interviewer that she was "terrified" about her series ending. I wanted to reach into the screen and drag her by her collagen-enhanced lips into a waiting room where she could hear something
truly terrifying-such as a radiologist saying he'd just looked at her ultrasound.
That day back in June, the radiologist who reviewed my test told me that the mass they'd found was nothing more than a cyst. I was relieved, but shaken. I'd been spared. And once I reach the five-year milestone next year, chances are good I'll be around indefinitely. But I was also wondering anew: Now what should I be doing that I'm not? What am I doing that I shouldn't? I realize that these questions will always be here-and that sometimes it takes a scare to remember to ask them.
It turns out that the cliché is true: Time is the best healer. My anger about having breast cancer is slowly receding as I reclaim my neat little existence. Each day I roll my life a little more steadily down a different path. My new reality can be scary, but the Frenchwoman was right: Life is beautiful.