NBC Chief Foreign Affairs Correspondent Andrea Mitchell is the latest public figure to share the dreaded news with the world: she’s been diagnosed with breast cancer. She announced her diagnosis and her “terrific prognosis” on the air last week.
Mitchell no doubt shocked her viewers when she said, “I had planned to be hiking in Wyoming last week, but instead discovered that I am now among the one in eight women in this country–incredibly, one in eight–who have had breast cancer.”
She seemed to stumble a bit on the words “who have had breast cancer,” perhaps because the news is relatively new for her and like most people who receive such a shocking diagnosis, her brain was still working hard to process the reality.
I’m not going to comment on the verbage she chose and my objection to the past-tense idea that she had breast cancer. My Cancerchick blogger friends have covered it more succinctly than I could, and while I think Mitchell is a little kookoo for assuming her cancer “journey” is over so soon after it began, one thing I’ve learned on my own long, involved “journey” is not to judge a fellow Cancerchick. Just as I learned firsthand that no one has a right to tell anyone else how to grieve (and if you try it, I will punch you in the brain), I believe that every Cancerchick has the right to conduct her “journey” however she sees fit.
Some of us are loud & proud with the disease and want everyone to know about every twist, turn, and detour on the “journey.” Some are guardedly private and keep everything quiet. Some go kicking and screaming into the OR, radiation suite, and infusion room. Some arm themselves with all the latest research and become fonts of useful information for other Cancerchicks. It’s very personal, and as varied as cancer’s victims are, so too are their responses to it.
I admit that as much as I hate to hear about one more woman joining the pink ribbon club, part of me feels a little less than compassionate toward Mitchell and her diagnosis. She’s 64 years old — more than 20 years older than I was when diagnosed. As far as I can tell, she has no kids — and if she does, they’re old enough to understand this breast cancer mess. I’m pretty sure she’s not juggling homework and the care & feeding of young kids while also battling the beast.
As for Mitchell’s other plans, to be hiking instead of hearing words that will forever change her life, I have one piece of advice: get used to it. As the sage John Lennon said, “Life is what happens while we’re busing making other plans,” and cancer has a crafty and crappy way of infringing on those plans.
Me, I was busy living an ordinary suburban life, packing lunches, driving carpool, and running my kids to baseball and tennis when I wasn’t on the tennis court myself. I admit I had no aspirations to hike in Wyoming. I’d spent many an hour volunteering at our elementary school and was contemplating other ways to give back to my community. A perfectly ordinary life, some days better than others but most filled with laughter, good friends, and happy times.
Once cancer picked me in the great genetic lottery, much of that perfectly ordinary life changed. All of my brain power was rerouted to disseminating this terrible information, researching options, facing the hard truths, and making a plan to conquer this vicious beast. I started a Caring Bridge journal to keep my friends & family informed, and remember writing this one week after my diagnosis:
“Today the exhaustion has set in, and the strain of keeping up with my regular life and taking on this new job of facing cancer has hit me hard. Nothing a cold bottle of Piper Sonoma can’t fix, but I truly feel like I’ve been hit by a truck. I’m fixin’ to get into my jammies and climb into bed. Today is one week to the day of diagnosis, and it feels like I’ve run a marathon. Maybe two.”
I hope Andrea Mitchell has a good pair of running shoes. Even in her caught-it-early optimism about the battle that is breast cancer, even with “a terrific prognosis,” the race is long. I do hope that Mitchell is correct in her prediction and that she’s able to get rid of her cancer “in one fowl swoop” as my sweet friend Paula’s 12-year-old son Boyd said about my cancer. But I also hope she knows that in this cancer “journey” there are lots of twists & turns along with many, many detours that test one’s patience, zaps one’s strength, exhaust one’s resources, maim one’s body, and stress one to the max.