What else? The disfigurement that my younger self had dreaded turned out to be nothing very drastic. Spared a mastectomy, I have instead a trio of fading scars, each a couple of inches long: one diagonally across my breast where the cancer had been, another under my arm where they removed the nodes it might (but fortunately hadn't) spread to, a third beneath my clavicle, where a valve was temporarily implanted to ease the administration of chemo. In the locker room after workouts in the hydrotherapy pool, women who had undergone mastectomies unself-consciously displayed bodies that were by no means mutilated. In fact, to me they were beautiful: the bodies of brave Amazons who had done what was required to survive the particular engagement in which they found themselves.
Lest this sound like Pollyanna, I want to acknowledge that my experience was shaped by my good fortune. I had the support of a loving partner and fabulous friends and family. As a writer, I controlled my days. I didn't have to show up in an office or depend on the empathy of an employer. I had an income that could withstand the loss of earnings as I slowed my work pace down. I had health insurance. And at 48, one of the potentially tragic side effects of treatment, infertility, was not an issue for me. I am well aware that had I had a more advanced or more aggressive cancer, treatment would have been harsher and harder to bear. Some people suffer horribly, and for some there is no hope. During radiation, I shared a waiting room every weekday for six weeks with pediatric cases, geriatric cases, and people for whom the treatment was palliative, to ease their pain, without promise of cure.
But I can only speak from my own experience, and my experience tells me that the exaggerated fear we have of this disease and its treatment is unwarranted, and dangerous, because it keeps women from seeking potentially lifesaving care.
Of course, I know all this now. I did not know any of it on the day of my diagnosis. I stood in that hospital corridor, halfway to the phone booth, as the sum of all my years of cancer fear sped toward me. All those years, visiting someone in a maternity ward or an elective surgery department, I'd hurry past the signs pointing to ONCOLOGY, making some kind of modern version of the old medieval sign against the evil eye. I didn't know what went on in there; I didn't want to know. But now I was going to find out.
“Not, I'll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee.” The line from Gerard Manley Hopkins's poem arrived unbidden. It had somehow unpacked itself from the mental closet of my high school English classes. Then my own more prosaic, slightly querulous inner voice started up: "You've always liked to think you're pretty tough," it instructed sternly. "Well, here's where you get to prove it." I turned the stalking shadow of fear back with the force of all my willpower. There would be no tears that day, or any day following. (Unless you count the day of my second surgery, when I made the mistake of watching Map of the Human Heart while I waited for my turn in the OR. When the orderlies finally came in to wheel me to the theater, I was boo-hoo-hooing my head off. They wouldn't believe I was crying over the movie's tragic story of unrequited Inuit love, and not my own predicament. After that, I made a new rule: Watch only comedies.)
We Hear You!