It’s not a gift, people

I ran into a woman at the gym who I hadn’t seen in a while. She didn’t know about my little bout with breast cancer, and when she asked what I’ve been up to, I told her. I told her the truth, that it was a simple cancer that was caught early and is highly treatable. The cancer was pretty simple, but the post-mastectomy infection was very complicated. I’m still dealing with the mess from that damned infection.

She asked a lot of questions, trotting out the usual suspects. I don’t mind the questions, and I don’t begrudge her curiosity. Here’s how the conversation went down: How did you know you had cancer? I didn’t. At my annual well-woman exam my OB-GYN found a lump that I never felt, even when she put my hand right on it. Why didn’t you do a lumpectomy instead of a mastectomy? Because I wanted to slash & burn each and every cancer cell in the area. Do you regret having chosen such a drastic surgery? Nope, not one bit. Turns out there was cancer in the other breast, that didn’t show up in any of the pre-surgery testing. Do you have a family history of breast cancer? Not so muchMy cousin Cheryl had it nearly 20 years ago, but my mom and her sister both died of different cancers. How old was your mom when she died? 67. Way too young, and not a day goes by that my heart doesn’t ache — some days physically but mostly it’s mental — from missing her, and while the grief certainly isn’t as raw after nearly 6 years, I don’t think I’ll ever stop missing her. How did you hide it from your kids? I didn’t try to but instead explained everything and reassured them that my cancer wasn’t going to kill me like YaYa’s killed her. 

It was a perfectly normal conversation — well, perfectly normal now that I’m among the 1 in 8 women who will contract this damned disease — and then she said it: the one thing that sets my teeth on edge, that makes me feel like steam is coming out of my ears, that makes me have to work really, really hard not to punch someone in the brain.

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She said, “It sounds like it’s been hard, but it’s so good to see you working hard in the gym. What a gift you’ve been given. Aren’t you so lucky to be so young and strong, and to have come out of this so well?”

I was speechless. I probably looked like a fish on a hook, mouth opening and closing, wondering what the hell just happened.

Of course I realize she was trying to say the right thing, and in all likelihood was even trying to compliment me with the “OMG, you look so healthy for someone who’s battled cancer” business. I know it’s a sticky situation, people, and that it’s hard to find the right thing to say. But really, is it that difficult?

I’m the absolute last person to look at a cancer diagnosis as a gift. It’s not. It’s a diagnosis of a terrible, terrifying disease. If you think cancer is a gift, kindly remove me from your list of people for whom you shop. I’m out. Yes, good things can come from a bad situation: new friendships blossom, existing relationships are strengthened, the depths of one’s character are carefully examined, yadda yadda. But at the end of the day, if someone tells me I’m better off for having had cancer, I call bullshit.

I recently read an interview with Melissa Etheridge about her breast cancer. She joined the pink ribbon club in October 2004, and has been quite outspoken about her “cancer journey.” I like Melissa Etheridge. I like her blatant feminism and her moxie. She displayed some rockin courage when she performed, bald, at the Grammys shortly after being diagnosed.

Things like her bald performance are very good for cancer patients, no doubt. Her decision to not wear a wig forces people to see the harsher sides of cancer, and I applaud her courage in putting herself out there, even if seeing her bald head makes some people uncomfortable. Especially if seeing her bald head makes some people uncomfortable.

But she also talks about cancer about something for which she’s grateful. I guess that takes courage, too, but I have a problem with it. She says that when someone tells her they’ve been diagnosed with cancer, her reply is “Wow, great! Your body is telling you that you can’t go on like this and you have to change. You’ll look back on your disease and say ‘I’m glad that happened to me.’ ”

Well, guess what? There was precious little in my life that needed to change pre-cancer. I exercised 6 days a week, ate heathfully, drank lots of water, avoided toxins, and worked hard to have a balanced and healthy life. Cancer got me anyway. I certainly won’t look back on this — assuming it ever ends — and say I’m glad it happened to me. Uh uh. No sir. No way. I can’t imagine looking back on this and saying I’m glad it happened. That its was a gift. Not in a million years.

Listen, Melissa: someone who’s newly diagnosed — and most likely terrified, freaked out, and shocked — does not need to hear someone essentially say, “Oops, I guess you’ve been doing it all wrong and this is your fault.” I don’t care if you are a celebrity and a Grammy winner. Zip it. No one needs to hear that. And no one needs to hear that cancer is a gift, either.

Sheesh. I’m not even going to get into the whole mess of it’s easy for her to say that, she’s a star and has plenty of money/time/resources/help/clout. That’s a post for another day (even though it’s true). Let’s stick to the idea of how wrong it is to imply that the person with cancer is somehow at fault, that he/she did something or didn’t do something that caused their cells to go wonky and create a shitstorm in their body. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

I will never forget my sweet  breast surgeon Dr Dempsey looking me in the eye while holding both my  hands and saying, “This is not your fault. You did not cause this cancer.” Here’s that part of the notes that Boss Lady took for me that day (doesn’t she have nice handwriting?). I’m not a touchy-feely person at all, but Dr Dempsey is, and she did me a huge favor that day by looking me in the eye and telling me that this is not my fault. I’m all for accepting responsibility, but not here, not when it comes to cancer. It’s not my fault, I’m not glad it happened to me, and it’s not a gift.

Pink ribbon club, celebrity style

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.