Surviving breast cancer
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.

But the real benefits, of course, were psychic. First I noticed that I was noticing my life. It was as if someone had stood next to me in the supermarket line and yelled in my ear, in the loudest voice imaginable—"Wake up!!!!" I stopped sleepwalking through my days. I started paying attention. I won't say clichéd things like "colors seemed brighter" or "flowers smelled sweeter." I am not sure they did. I just felt a new sense grow in me—I became conscious of time; I was alert in a new way. I felt things more deeply.

Second benefit: I realized I'd spent too much time in my life doing things I didn't want to do, and I learned to say no. When my in-laws want the family to fly across the country to celebrate Thanksgiving, I actually say to my husband, "No, I am tired and I don't want to spend my vacation traveling. I am not doing that." And I don't. I join a highly compensated committee where a belligerent and simpleminded colleague bullies me—and get this, I quit it. Just like that. "I don't care about the money. I am not going back," I say to my husband. And I don't.

Third: My husband and I stop quarreling. Why did we ever bother? What could have been that important? My relationship with my sister gets better. Half a lifetime of sibling rivalry evaporates like smoke. We'd lived in an unhealthy and illusory narrative that everything always went right for me and wrong for her. Suddenly the suffering seems more roundly distributed. My parents become more financially generous; they'd saved money their whole lives to leave me a fortune, but realize that perhaps they should not wait.

Most important, having breast cancer focuses me on my children like a laser. I was always an attentive mother, but a working one, and a conflicted one. The feeling that I should always be in the other place trailed me like a whining dog. Days I had meetings and couldn't pick them up after school, I felt guilty. Days I canceled classes to see their performances filled me with dread. Now it was as if someone had said, "Okay, you have a year to live—how do you want to spend it?" The answer could not have been more clear: I want to spend every minute humanly possible with my children. They are far and away more important to me than anything on earth. I want to spend time looking at their faces, admiring their attributes, building their strength and courage. And I have, without the slightest twinge.

Finally, and best of all, I have stopped expecting the worst. Worrying should prepare you for disaster, but it doesn't. I learned that nothing prepares you. We spend so much time in our lives suffering, we don't need any dress rehearsals. The worst will find us, and you know what? We will have to deal with it when it does.

I do not know if I will ever want to say that breast cancer was the best thing that ever happened to me. But my life is better now; more heartily felt. Last year I returned to writing poetry—all the poems are about the possibility of finding joy. This past soccer season, I met my breast surgeon at the field where his children play alongside mine. We embraced like survivors of a catastrophe who meet again after a long while. "Who was that?" my daughter asked afterward. "You really like him." "Yes," I replied emotionally, "I do really like him. He was my doctor when I was sick; he is a wonderful, wonderful man, and I am better for having known him." Would I have chosen a life where I did not get to meet him? Yes. Would I have been happier in that life? No, I don't think so.

A poet and English professor at Butler University, Hilene Flanzbaum is writing a book about interfaith couples.


Next Story