Nancy’s Point is a blog I’ve followed for years. Her summer challenge is a call to share. So I did. And if you’re so inclined (as a cancer veteran from the front or sidelines), please join in!
- Share anything you want about your cancer diagnosis. Share your age, cancer type, stage, when you were diagnosed, family history (if any), your reaction, how you learned the news, or whatever you’re comfortable sharing.
I was 40. It was my first mammogram. They never said, “Hey, looks good! The radiologist will send the report in a few days.” In retrospect, I think I knew then. My husband, Bernie (a plastic surgeon who has treated over a thousand women like me) looked at my films before the radiologist ever called. I had a diagnosis of invasive cancer by the end of that week: stage 1, high grade, scary family history, but no damning genes. My maternal grandmother had had a radical mastectomy at my age; one of her sisters died from breast cancer before age 40. Mom and her twin sister always assumed it would be one of them. It wasn’t. It was me.
- What is the most outrageous thing someone has said to you about your cancer?
Probably we’ve all gotten the “Well, at least you got a boob job out of this! Ha ha ha! I hate my boobs. I would LOVE to have them done! Amiright?” But maybe not many of us have gotten this from her own primary care doctor.
- What is your biggest cancer pet peeve? I know it’s hard to choose, as there are many to pick from, right? But what irks you the most?
It’s the Facebook memes that drive me bonkers. The single heart emoji posted as a status IS AN AFFRONT TO ALL WOMEN WHO HAVE HAD BREAST CANCER. The latest one was a classic cut-and-paster message claiming that it was Breast Cancer Prevention Week, which was four months ago, and I’m not really sure is a thing. These often are accompanied by private messages to “feel your boobies” which is wildly insensitive when delivered to women who no longer have them. Otherwise lovely, supportive friends feel bullied to post these things and pass them along or… what… they don’t care about cancer? I wonder who starts these.
- What is something you want others to know specifically about breast cancer?
First, another truth about those fucking memes: they can be a jarring reminder. Occasionally, we’ll have entirely cancer-free moments. Maybe we’re still in jammies and didn’t shower so haven’t revisited our scars; maybe we haven’t taken the Tamoxifen yet and are still doing the normal things normal people do, like yelling at children that the bus is coming or cutting crusts off of sandwiches. Then… WHAM. Your fucking heart emoji. Oh yeah, cancer. Thanks for the reminder. We live with it on our minds and bodies every single day and have all of October to endure. Unless that heart is a link to donating money toward metastatic disease research, it isn’t doing a single thing for us but providing a bit of posttraumatic stress.
Most people also do not realize that there is no “remission” for breast cancer, only NED (no evidence of disease). Asking us if we are “in remission” or “all good now” or if it’s “all over” forces us to lie to you, or get into uncomfortable discussions about how we’re secretly sure this is the thing that is going to kill us. I know what you mean when you sort of quietly ask, “How are you?” And when I say, “Fine, thank you so much,” we’re good. When you ask a breast cancer veteran if it’s “all over,” we assume you need it to be “over” and that really isn’t about us, at all.
- If applicable, do you worry about recurrence rarely, from time to time or a lot? What is your biggest worry today, right now, this minute?
I worry about it all of the time, but in the past five years I’ve had only one, true freak-out that landed me in the scanner. I’m fine. I tell myself I’m fine. I remind myself of the statistics for Stage 1 and how grandma lived to 83 after her radical mastectomy and how long some of us are living with Stage 4 disease. But it’s the pink ribbon monster under the bed.
- Do you feel cancer has made you a better person? Yes, I know this a loaded question.
It has made me a different person, for sure. I already assumed I was pretty awesome before The Diagnosis. I think I care about little things even less than I did before. Just last week a gaggle of teen boys had a wrestling match in my guest bedroom and ran the doorknob right through the drywall. And I thought, “It’s just a wall.” I honestly could not muster any feeling other than, “ugh, boys.” Sometimes I think cancer contributed to that kind of nonchalance about non-life-threatening things like holes in walls.
- What is your favorite cancer book?
For sure, Hester Hill Schnipper’s After Breast Cancer. It was like food to me in the aftermath of chemo and surgery. I just kept reading and nodding. I still cannot believe how lucky I am that I could sit on her couch and bask in her wisdom during the scariest times.
- Besides your family, where do you turn for emotional support?
All of you: the cancer veterans. The blogging strangers and friends from real life who have walked this road—I call us the Shitty Sorority– you ladies are a life line. But in the day to day, it’s Steve, my writing partner and testicular cancer veteran who I text with, “Can you believe these fucking memes are going around again?” And he gets it.
- How many cancer blogs do you read and why do you read them?
I follow quite a few. Nancy’s has always spoken to me because she heralds science and refuses to give into the Cancer Made Me a Better Person trope. Terri Coutee is doing fabulous work with her diepcfoundation.org and her Facebook group that connects patients with each other and really fabulous microsurgeons. And like many of you, I bet, I still miss Lisa Bonchek Adams.
- Do you call yourself an advocate? If so, what drives you?
You bet your ass I do. Just writing answers to these prompts is advocacy. Also, I will talk to ANYONE who is going through this. I was a surgical resident many moons ago, and my husband is a world expert in breast reconstruction. We know stuff. I’m happy to share information. Even more importantly, especially in the wee hours, I can text, “I’m here. I get it.”
A decade ago, when I was largely alone all day with tiny, parasitic Bernie clones, I might have written something like Mrs. Rowe’s fed-up-to-here, open letter to her husband. In the moment, those feelings seem funny/true, but when read with a decade of hindsight (and larger children who don’t need pooping assistance), rants like this make me… sad. I want the whole family to race past these brutal years that inspire a meant-to-be-funny, but still quite public flogging of The Husband. I might have greatly benefitted from some part time help (and meds) as a Stay At Home Mom in those early years. Swapping a beeper and a real, outside-the-house job for never-ending days with crying children and Dawson’s Creek reruns led to a social, emotional, and intellectual whiplash for which I was unprepared. Because texting, blogging, Facebook, Twitter, and all myriad outlets that keep us intimately tied to each other’s weird little worlds weren’t in existence, I did what you do when you’re at your wit’s end with small children and never-home husband. I called my big sister.
Boy, did I. None of my besties in the area had started breeding, and absolutely no one I knew in the medical field ever quit their life-saving jobs to stay home with non-verbal bundles of sleep-averse, ever-hungry pant-shitters in embroidered onesies. I was lonely, exhausted, and prone to unattractive moods swinging narrowly between irritated and glum. In that moment, my Big Sister–staunch defender of all of my wants, needs, and beliefs, champion of All Things Britt— the Catholic, opinionated, occasionally scary Zealot Sister… sided with Bernie. Gently, and really quite beautifully, Paige refused to sing my Battle Cry Against The Ineffectual Husband. Instead, she shared some excellent advice, recommended a book, and insisted I get some mommy friends.
I was fabulously bad at the mommy friend thing. I scouted out the local playground and attempted to make nice with the ladies who corralled their strollers by the benches. I never got past a few awkward exchanges before I realized they were all wearing long skirts and head scarves and maybe the Orthodox Jewish Mommy Group wasn’t keen to take on a blonde shiska with the whiff of friendless desperation. I tried another park.
Lonely Mom with a small girl who insisted on wrong-footed shoes seemed like a good option. Surely, this was a pick-your-battles kind of mommy who also cozied to the idea of mid-afternoon wine? As it turned out, Lonely Mom picked absolutely no battles and was still breast-feeding her Dorito-munching toddler tyrant while defending the values of the Family Bed. She made me sadder than
her husbandI already was.
What I did have, however, was A-Ma. Bernie’s mom raced up to Boston on the Fung Wah any time I called. Honestly, any time. One particularly brutal day, I told her I couldn’t shower without hearing both boys wailing on the baby monitor, that my dreams were exclusively about the sounds of wailing on the baby monitor, that I hadn’t eaten anything but Blow Pops and Hot Pockets for a week, and that I didn’t know if the stains on my clothes were pre- or post-intestinal foods. She arrived that afternoon. A-Ma remembered the unholy, not-cute-at-all daily grind; and with only one foot in the door she’d say, “Go! Go to take nap!” I promised then and there to be that kind of grandma some day. She saved my life (and improved my marriage) more than once.
Perhaps what the author of Five Things You Should Never Say to the Mother of Your Children really needs is a nap and A-Ma. In fact, the first comment after her light-hearted rant against her husband was from the author’s mother:
I quite agreed with her, recalling the advice Paige recommended to me 10 years ago, when I was exasperated with the man I love the most. First, she reminded me that Bernie was no mind reader and that stewing silently and acting the martyr would lead more quickly to marital strife than to any sort of enjoyable co-parenting. She annoyingly insisted I plant myself in his loafers, and made me read The Bastard on the Couch—a fantastic collection of essays written by dads (and written in playful retaliation against The Bitch in the House, which largely described what I was becoming). Where Momma Rowe gets angry that her husband is allowed to poo behind closed doors apart from the toddler audience with demands, I’m now more apt to think, hey, why share the pain? Go ahead and lock the door. Lucky you! This stay-at-home blogger also, with great humor and exaggeration, suggests sex is off the table until the children are big enough to sit at it.
This is where Paige’s big sisterly advice might have sounded supportive:
However, she didn’t offer this as a scatological slam on bathroom door-locking spouses; no, she meant it quite literally. (She also never, ever said this. Well, she said this, but not like this… because she’s classier than I am.) She waxed Catholic: the vows and sacraments and quaint ideas about contracts and promises and vaguely about the baser biological needs of boys in general… and she said all of this without making me throw feminist arguments at her, or throw up in general. In the end, she was really just suggesting that I act with greater kindness and love, and that I find some mommy friends who would understand why sometimes that seemed impossible.
GrandMomma Rowe is adorably protective of her son-in-law… much like Paige was for Bernie back in my days of Days (of Our Lives). Long hours with demanding children and soap operas will make anyone a little nutty. But without an Internet forum for irritated moms to publicly berate their constipated, celibate husbands, we had Big Sisters and A-Mas. The Big Sisters and A-Mas understand you, listen to you, and then tell you to take a nap and to shower and to quit it. They’ll keep reminding you that there is an end to it all, will never (ever!) tell you to “cherish” days of sleepless, messy torture, and they’ll make you feel warm, and loved, and heard.
Then again, having 100 strangers offer thumbs up, preach-it-sister encouragement probably works, too… as long as The Husband is in on the meant-to-be-funny part.
This was ridiculously useful to me… and reminded me why I love boys in general, and my own in particular.