What's It Really Like to Live Through Breast Cancer?
You were right not to tell everyone. People say crazy things. "Oh, I heard you have breast cancer. My mother had breast cancer, and she died." Great, thanks for telling me. And your friend who said you were in denial because you don't constantly check WebMD or try to tell your doctor how to treat you. You told her, "If I were in denial, would I be at the doctor's office all the time?" Knowing your tumor's size in centimeters—how does that help? Let other people make graphs and tables and follow every detail if they want to. People should do what works for them.
And this is working! This is doable. This is nothing. Victor doesn't want to talk about it. He drops you off at chemo—he doesn't stay—and you ask him how he is and he says, "I'm okay." He says that a lot. He says it every time you ask: "I'm okay. I'm okay." At first he didn't touch you. The nurses at the clinic said, "You need to do normal things. Have sex!" You told Victor that. You said he had to talk to you or you'd drag him to the marriage counselor. "Okay, okay," he said.
The kids are okay, too. They're completely, totally okay. They pray for you. They go to Coney Island on the weekends; they do their schoolwork. You told them you were sick, that you had to have treatment for a disease. You did not say cancer, and still, they asked if you were going to die.
This is your stop, your street, your house.
Why is the sink full of dishes?
Why is there a sink full of dishes for you to do when you're reading grant proposals at the Ford Foundation and making copies and sending e-mails at the office and going to the doctor all the time and feeling about as bad as you've ever felt in your life?
And just like that, something inside you comes undone. It is not your job to do everything—especially not now.
"I have cancer!" you shout at your family. "I can't do the dishes!"
They stare at you like you've lost your mind.
"I need someone to rub my feet!" you tell them. "I have cancer!"
"Okay, okay," they say.
You tell them you want to curse, and you do. "Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!"
The kids start crossing themselves. Mom calls the priest, who comes right away. "Why are you here?" you snap, and when he asks if you're all right, you tell him what you must have been wanting to tell everyone all along: You're tired, and you're afraid, and this isn't fair. You let yourself question God's infinite plan. You let yourself say, "I don't want this."
The relief is heavenly.
You start letting people know. When you're in the big beige recliner, you get text after text—from people in New York, the Philippines, everywhere. When you head to the office after the final dose of chemo, you find a bouquet of flowers on your desk from the one who said you were in denial. She becomes your friend again. Your hair begins to come back. You keep wearing the wig to work, not sure when you should stop, and one day you leave it on the bus and that takes care of that. Your hair is short, not much longer than a buzz cut, but you don't mind people seeing it. You hear that a colleague's husband has cancer, and you tell the woman, "I had cancer, too." Radiation turns your collarbone gray-black, and during the last session the laser breaks your skin open, and you think, Thank you, because what if it had broken before that and you had to keep going? You take Alexa and Jade to the lake to teach them how to fish, and to the amusement park where they ride a rickety old wooden roller coaster. When the ride starts, you get nervous and take out your rosary, and the guy who flips the switch says, "Lady, you're praying too loud, it's bad for business."
The week his unemployment runs out, Victor gets a job. You feel less like Job. When you see Dr. Oratz for a checkup, you tell her, "I know you're not supposed to talk about religion with your patients. But tell them to pray. Even if they're atheists—they can pray to a plant, to whatever god they want. But tell them to pray."
In the last week of March 2011, you get on a plane with your family. When you land, you can't stop grinning. And when you arrive at the grotto in Lourdes, all you can do is stand there and cry.