And so this week’s moment of happiness despite the news.
This may come across as an odd one at first. I’ve actually spent a huge amount of time today, trying to come up with another Moment instead of the one that keeps popping up in my head. I’m worried about this Moment coming across as I’m somehow happy that a friend has been diagnosed with breast cancer. I’m not. But the Moment is caught up in this.
So a friend told me on Monday that she’d failed her mammogram and was going for two biopsies on Tuesday. On Tuesday, she emailed me and said, “Radiologists can be wrong, right?” And on Wednesday, we spoke in the morning, while she was waiting for the result, and we spoke again in the evening, when she had the result. Positive. With the exact same breast cancer I had in 2017.
I’m three years out now, though I am still on oral chemotherapy, popping a little yellow pill each day that leaves me feeling achy and sweaty. Fun. I’ve never considered my breast cancer experience positive before. But now…well, this week, it showed me what that experience could do. For others.
When she told me she had to have the biopsies, I was able to tell her exactly what would happen and how it would feel. She walked in to the clinic with real knowledge.
When she emailed me, asking if a radiologist could be wrong, we were able to compare notes. My radiologist normally told women they had a 20% chance it was cancer, and an 80% chance it wasn’t, but with me, he was switching it. He was 80% sure I had cancer. In my friend’s case, her radiologist told her she was “pretty confident” it was cancer. My friend and I talked about this, talked about how we walked out, shattered, of the same cancer center, talked about our hopes…and then talked about reality.
When she called me with the result, she cried, and I knew where the tears were coming from. I told her not to try to stop them. We discussed the blank stares, the shock, the belief that it wasn’t real, that there would be a phone call saying that the wrong result, someone else’s, had been given. Her next step is an MRI, and we talked about that, and I told her things that the medical staff hadn’t told her to expect. How hot she would feel. How her lower back would ache because of the lay-on-your-stomach position, and how the required pose arches your back. The first time I had the MRI, I didn’t know about bolsters. They didn’t tell me about bolsters. But when I said at the second one that my back ached after the first MRI, they immediately pulled one out and eased the strain in my back by supporting my shins. Apparently, the bolsters are a secret. “Ask for a bolster for your shins,” I said.
We talked about the well-intentioned, but inane things people say. “Oh, you’re so lucky! You have the good kind of cancer!”, because the cancer she has and I had was estrogen-based and more easily treated. But there is no good kind of cancer. “Keep a positive attitude! That helps in the healing!” Actually, stuffing your feelings of sadness, fear and anger makes you suffer more. I told her she would have negative days (like right now) and positive days. Accept them both. “Once you have the surgery, don’t say you have cancer anymore! That puts it out in the Universe and it will come back!” Oh, for god’s sake. I didn’t even have to explain that one. Our eyes rolled and our laughs were incredulous.
And I told her about the one thing that someone said to me that stuck. That resonated. I received the 80% news two days before I was to lead the AllWriters’ Annual Retreat for a four-day weekend. I am pretty sure I walked the halls of the retreat center for those four days with the cliché deer-in-the-headlights expression, that wasn’t a cliché because I never ever ever expected to have to face breast cancer. One of my students, a doctor, would stop me in my tracks whenever he saw me. He put his hands on my shoulders. And he said, “You’re going to be okay. No matter what. You might have a tough time for a while, but you’re going to be okay.” He didn’t tell me I wouldn’t have it, that it would be all right. He didn’t tell me it would be easy. He didn’t tell me to stay positive and to pull tricks on the Universe. He just said, “You’re going to be okay, no matter what,” letting me know that even if it was hard, there would be a time again when all would be well.
And he was right.
So throughout all of our conversations the last few days, I told my friend she would be okay. No matter what.
And I knew that I was giving her the one thing I really wished I had during all of my own experience – someone who would sit and listen and understand and say, “I know,” because the experience was shared. The “I know”, my “I know” comes from compassion, for sure, but it also comes out of knowledge. She can see, in me, someone who knows what she’s feeling, knows what she’s going to go through, and is still sitting, intact, right across from her. With a wonky-looking breast, for sure, but really, intact.
Before we hung up on Skype last night, she said, “Kathie, you are a really, really good friend.”
And for the first time ever, since the radiologist told me I had an 80% chance of having breast cancer, and it turned out he was 100% right, since going through the ultrasounds, biopsies, MRI’s, surgery, 20 rounds of radiation, what has been 3 years of oral chemotherapy, what will be a total of 5 years of oral chemotherapy, since tears and fears and anger and the world not only turning on its ear, but feeling like it became roadkill, for the first time ever, I am grateful that I had breast cancer.
Because I could be there. In the deepest way possible. For her.
And yes, that helps. Despite. Anyway.