There is a game that Frankie, of “Frankie and Grace”, used to play with her husband: the “yes” night. Every so often, they would go out together and say yes to everything that came their way, or that they proposed to each other: every invitation, every suggestion would be accepted, just to see where they would end up if they stepped out of their comfort zone. Some writer, at the communal writing table, came up with this particular plot point, and I wondered whether it was drawn from real life. Either way, I liked it enough it resonated with me past the end of the episode.
While recovering from breast cancer surgery, I did spend some time thinking how facing an illness whose primary connotation is forcing thoughts of mortality changed me. And did it change me? Yes and no. There was no deep moment of revelation or vows to turn my life around – I am pretty happy with my life. The main lesson drawn so far has been to say yes more often than I say no, because, literally, I don’t know what is lurking around the next corner. But there were some practical lessons I took note of and they will inform my life from now on.
- Resilience is defined, when describing a person, as “readily recovering from depression, buoyant.” I sprang back from the shock and the sadness pretty quickly and kept my wits about me. I always knew I was strong but I found out that being struck by what I feared most didn’t paralyze me. Proof that, for better or worse, we are wired to accept whatever transformation reshapes our life, accepting the new normal. No matter what, we still put one foot in front of the other.
- I met women who told me they didn’t want to know anything about their disease and just wanted to be told what to do. I am not one of them and finding out everything I could about breast cancer helped me make decisions. I did some research on-line but not much. The internet is not your friend under such circumstances – too much of what is written is aimed at generic audiences, unreliable or plain scary, unless you have someone to steer you towards what is legit. I did talk to other women who had gone through it and I relentlessly questioned doctors, nurses and researchers. I still do. Just because I don’t have a medical degree, it doesn’t mean I have to take at face value what I am told. I am still sorting through information as I decide how to move my treatment forward. If the final word has to rest with me, I need to know as much as I can.
- Sharing was of immense value. True, I had to endure mindless comments, dubious cancer stories and wade through a sea of phone calls and messages but it also meant being the recipient of valuable information and constant support.
- Unexpected moments of grace. Too many to list but they restored my faith in humankind’s generosity of spirit: the stylish and soft lounge pajamas Bonnie had landing on my doorstep; the heartfelt email Carla sent, when the last time we spoke must have been 20 years ago; the unsolicited and precious advice a doctor’s friend gave me; the fellow volunteer I met only a few weeks before, who appeared 30 minutes before my surgery, with a giant orchid in her hands; my friend Silvia’s surprise Christmas trip to LA, just because; the readers who contacted me privately or showed their support for a complete stranger. And on and on. Each gesture, each word brightened my days.
- Let those who love you in. No matter the difficulty you are facing. Those who know you best will also know how best to drag you back when you inch too close to the precipice, and help you put things into perspective. Noticing a downward slide, sofagirl sat me down and had me watch this. It worked.
- Fashionable activism is useless. If I wasn’t much of a pink ribbon fan before, I certainly won’t be running a marathon now. A nurse I work with told me of being diagnosed with breast cancer 20 years ago, “when it wasn’t fashionable, or talked about. It carried a stigma.” If the pink ribbons have helped remove the stigma somewhat, I question how much of those dollars raised selling pink crap actually find their way to research at all. Whatever you feel strongly about, volunteer or give your money directly to research organizations. With the wealth of information I have accrued, I am planning to help other women who might not have the same resources or support I have. As to breast cancer, if you wish to be useful, get yourself checked, urge other women to get checked, offer to go along if they are scared. And don’t wait for October.
I am by no means done. I was lucky, my cancer was caught early, but I will never be done. Now that the surgery is just a faint little scar, there are treatment options to consider, pills to take for years to come. And the possibility this will happen again in the future. I might be rid of cancer now but no doctor, in 2015, can tell me, or the millions like me, this will never happen again. They can only reduce the likelihood. While I wait, and hopefully don’t see, I said yes to a trip to Rwanda; I said yes to a job project right smack in the middle of my radiation; I say yes to holiday invitations I normally avoid like the plague. I also walk in a straight line as much as I can. Now that I have turned this corner.