Dana Cowin got breast cancer, then threw a party.
Photo: Courtesy of Dana Cowin
After her diagnosis, Dana Cowin saw three choices: (1) feel sorry for herself, (2) hole up alone, or (3) celebrate the things that matter most.
When I told my mother I had stage III breast cancer that would require chemotherapy, a double mastectomy, removal of the ovaries and fallopian tubes, radiation, and breast reconstruction, she couldn't believe it. At 78 she had almost never been in the hospital except for childbirth. How could her daughter have cancer? She seemed practically indignant, as if her gene pool had been insulted. This annoying response was followed by a more characteristically upbeat one: For every bad thing, she said, we'll make sure there's a good thing. My mother doesn't look for the silver lining; she looks for the platinum. And as her 47-year-old daughter, I am much the same, so much so that a friend once called me "pathologically positive." So, to counterbalance the misery of cancer treatments, I began to throw a series of parties.

The first was for my staff. I'm the editor-in-chief of Food & Wine magazine, and I wanted to make it clear that this cancer business was going to be okay for them. I invited everyone to our wine room, under the guise of a tasting. They arrived to find bottles of pink Champagne and trays of pink-frosted cupcakes. Before I stood to speak, my heart was pounding. Could I really do this? I raised my glass and said something like "I think you all know it's Breast Cancer Awareness Month. I certainly do: I've been diagnosed with breast cancer." People looked surprised, confused, uncomfortable, sad…. But I didn't stop talking, in my pathologically positive way, until the mood lightened.

The second party was the brainchild of my oncology nurse, Matt, who asked if I was going to mark the midpoint of my four months of chemotherapy. I loved the idea: It would give me something to look forward to, which is important when you're feeling alternately nauseated, exhausted, anxious, preoccupied, and occasionally absolutely normal. I was sick of thinking about cancer. I'd be sitting in the subway, wondering who else had the disease. I'd scan hairlines for bad wigs. I'd worry about getting a cold, which could force me to miss my treatment. Once I decided to have a party, though, I could stop obsessing about cancer and start focusing on guest lists, decorations, food.

I settled on the theme If Life Gives You Lemons, Make Lemon Meringue Pie. My friends would bring both savory and sweet pies: quiche, apple, chocolate pecan, and of course lemon meringue. And my mother would host. No way did I want to cook or clean up for a big group of people. I'd been feeling relatively well, but not that well.

Along with being a distraction, I realized, the party would also provide a great way to see friends—all at once. I'd asked a few to come with me to my chemo sessions (I called them my Drip Buddies) and I'd tried to answer every e-mail, but I hadn't done any real socializing for months. Also, so many people had offered to Do Anything. But what? Having them bring pie would give them a way to help.

The day of the party I felt fantastic. My kids, William, 5, and Sylvie, 7, were running around the apartment, happy and a little oblivious. I didn't taste a single pie; I was way too busy talking to all the guests.

When it was time for the double mastectomy, my nearest and dearest were agitating for another party. I wasn't so sure about this one. I was really sad about losing my breasts. Though small, they were my favorite body part. Every morning in the shower I'd look down and lament their impending loss. I wanted to memorize their contours. I wanted to hold on to the feeling of what it was like to be whole. To get through this, I realized, I'd need as much support from my female friends as I could get. So I decided to have the party after all, with a simple theme: Soul Sisters. Girls Only.

By now my friendships had shifted subtly but significantly. Relationships formed decades ago and maintained at a minimum in recent years, because we're all so damned busy, were revived. My colleagues at work had become my chief cheerleaders and comrades in commiseration. As befits the Soul Sisters theme, I mandated a '70s-style dress code. Tina Ujlaki, the magazine's executive food editor and hostess extraordinaire, ordered platters of soul food (ribs and fried chicken) and bottles of a red wine aptly named Strong Arms Shiraz, and enlisted someone to create a fabulous playlist (with "Lady Marmalade"!). At the end of the party, my friends began to make toasts, and my sweet husband (the only male at the event) publicly proclaimed his love and admiration.

Now I'm coming up on my 10th month of cancer and planning my post-radiation party. This one is going to be a blowout, with the theme of Wishing Well. I want all my friends to write down what they would do in this life if they could do anything they wanted. My precancer self would have rolled her eyes at such a thing. Even though I'm hardwired for cheer, I eschew the sappy. But I'm proud to say I'm a different kind of party girl now.


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