Illustration: Charles Wilkin
I am not an optimist. I don't believe that the glass is half full, or in making lemonade when life hands me lemons. I am the granddaughter of four Eastern European Jews who fled Poland to escape pogroms. I am a pessimist; when it is sunny, I look for rain; when the phone rings after 10 p.m., I start planning the funeral. My favorite joke is: "Jewish telegram—'Start worrying; details to follow.'" I tell you this so you will not think of me as a perky, upbeat, blonde person, in denial of every dark emotion she has ever had. Nor am I religious, or even sure I believe in God. I am dark; my hair is dark; my eyes are dark. As both an intellectual and a cynic, I have trouble admitting this but here goes: Having breast cancer changed my life—for the better.
Lots of survivors say something like this. I have even heard some say, "Breast cancer was the best thing that ever happened to me." I had always viewed this remark with skepticism—"Boy, that must be one great antidepressant..."
I had the bad mammogram on March 13, 2001, the first day of spring break. I was 42 years old and had two daughters, 6 and 8. The year before, the technician had taken one picture, come back and said simply, "You can go home." "I can?" I asked. I had expected worse. In 2001, I got it. The technician took the first picture and came back for another. And another. And then they made me wait for a sonogram. Then they made me wait to talk to the radiologist. He was unsympathetic—grouchy even—and unmovable. "You are going to want to have this looked at," he said. He didn't say, "It's probably nothing, but..." That's what all my girlfriends had heard. But he wouldn't say that. Instead, when I pushed him for any comforting words, he said gruffly, "Well, if it's cancer, we've gotten it early."
I have nothing cheerful to say about the next three and a half months. It was all horrible—the waiting was the worst. After that initial mammogram, I waited three weeks for a biopsy. I knew it was cancer. The husband of a best friend died suddenly from an aneurysm. I didn't even feel I could complain. At least I was alive. My friends tried to cheer me up. Nine out of 10 biopsies are unnecessary, they said. You're so young, they said. But your mother never had breast cancer, they said. I knew I had cancer. Just as I'd known I would not "just lose" the 40 pounds I gained during my first pregnancy. "Oh, it just slips off," women said. "Slips off?" I thought. "On me, it is not going to slip off so fast." And I was right. My mother's friends said, "Oh, she'll have a lumpectomy and radiation and be done with it." I didn't believe that either, and I was right. After two attempts to get clean margins, I had a mastectomy on the right side; the following year when the tech found precancerous cells on the left side, I had one on that side.
So after having a double mastectomy by the time I was 43, where is the bright side?
On the medical side, I had some good news. The first tumor had been small, its cells nonaggressive. The oncologist did not recommend chemo. And because I had no breast tissue left and the chest wall was uninvolved, I did not need radiation. Plus—big bonus here—because I had no more breasts, I would never have to have a mammogram again. Now you're jealous, admit it.
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