Breast Cancer Journals, Part 4

Note: This is part 4 of a 5-part series of journal excerpts written when I was diagnosed with breast cancer 15 years ago. Read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 of this series

Friday, January 5, 1996

A new year, thank God.  On New Year’s Eve, my husband and I gathered every 1995 calendar we could find and placed them on a plastic chair on our patio.  Then he threw together a chemical cocktail of saltpeter and sugar, and the calendars went up in a blinding flash of light and white smoke.  Unfortunately, so did the plastic chair, but I guess that’s the price you pay for symbolism.

So far, I’ve seen the radiation oncologist twice, and I’m surprised at how much I dislike starting a new kind of therapy.  This morning, I lay flat on my back in a freezing room while three technicians and the radiologist drew so many marks on my left breast I felt like a rib roast.

According to Dr. S, the radiation oncologist, I’m getting radiated because the tumor in my left breast was only a millimeter from my chest wall.  A millimeter?  Once I heard that, I wished I hadn’t.  It’s like thinking about my three positive nodes, which I always picture as vile and moldy-looking and rancid, with flies buzzing around them.

Friday, January 19

Radiation is now part of my schedule.  My car could drive to Baylor Hospital without me, I’m sure.  Every morning, I drive slowly and I usually play my tape deck full-blast.  On days when it’s clear and sunny and I feel good, I wail along with the music and pretend I’m Patsy Cline.

Once I’m at the cancer center, I barrel into the waiting room and wave at everybody I know.  I head to the changing room and pull on a blue or green gown.  Then I sit down and talk to whoever’s there.

It’s an incongruous group of patients.  Almost all the men have prostate cancer and they’re in their 60s or 70s.  The women are almost all younger, like me, and they’re breast cancer patients.

When my name is called, I make my grand entrance into the treatment room.  I climb on the table and lay my head back and move in whatever direction they tell me to.  They measure me here and there until I’m perfect.  Then they leave.

“We’ll be back,” one of them always says.

“I think I’ll wait here,” I say sometimes.  It seems to amuse them.


There’s a big controversy on the breast cancer bulletin board on the Internet.  Something like, New Age Treatments: Are They Hoaxes or Miracles?

One woman writes glowingly about going to Mexico to get shark cartilage injections and coffee enemas.  (Frankly, I don’t think this is a market Starbucks will want to get into.)  Another hints at promises of immediate cures if you’ll contact her at her email address, so she can tell you about some surefire vitamin supplements that saved her best friend’s life.

Then, the doctor who regularly answers medical questions lets Vitamin Woman have it.  She’s a charlatan, he says.  She’s peddling useless, unproven remedies for profit.  She’s preying on our fears.

Exactly! I think.  I’m contemptuous of all this new-age bullshit and women on the bulletin boards who sign their names “Love and Light” and those sad, cringing cases who journey to Mexico so they can feed on false hopes and apricot pits.  Contemptuous!

So why am I hanging on to Vitamin Woman’s email address?

Because I’m like everybody else on that bulletin board.  I’m scared and hopeless and out of control.  I’m sick of medicine.  I want magic.

(Copyright 2010 by Ruth Pennebaker)

Read Part 5 of this series.

Read about what it’s like to sit on the other side of the table when the news is bad

10 comments… add one
  • You make it so real and so raw, Ruth.

  • So true about wanting to hang onto every magical charlatan  treatment out there.
    I think it’s gotten worse now that we have more access to all of those methods via the Internet. Whenever any sort of medical trauma hits me or my family, now my mantra is to never look it up online. Mostly what you see is the bad stuff, the bad outcomes, the unproven remedies, the hucksters. Everyone’s an expert.
    I tend to stick with the docs’ remedies as I’ve gotten older (I’m turning into my mom). But then, sometimes you hear about those miracles and wonder if the charlatan methods are worth another look…
    Thanks again for these wonderful, raw, real posts, Ruth.

  • We all want a bit of magic. No one will fault you for that.

  • You know, it must be said: I am so glad that you are still here and that you beat the odds!

  • My friend who battled cancer last year got very interested in nutrition and exercise. I was so glad. I think it’s so hard to go through something like this. I am thinking a lot about you today on this anniversary of your treatment. You’re a survivor and one of my heros.

  • Quick fixes, magic curse, they always do sound better even though we know they won’t. Cancer seems so random.

  • We all want to cling to life, take a shot on something unproven, if by some infinitesimal chance it may work. Glad you’re still here, Ruth, to take us through your painful journey.

  • I totally understand the draw of other possibilities for cure, especially when you feel helpless and hopeless.
    Burning up all the calendars is a powerful image, by the way.
    Thanks again for sharing.

  • Wouldn’t it be nice if eating apricot pits and taking vitamins were all it took to kick cancer’s butt. Sadly, that just ain’t so, not now any way. However, I was intrigued by that Crazy Sexy Cancer documentary about the woman who completely changed her routine – diet, exercise, meditation – and the cancer, at the time of the documentary’s release, was in remission.

  • I feel like I really know you, Ruth. Thanks for sharing this throughout the week. It will be a gift to many readers.

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