Note: September 8 will mark the 15th anniversary of my diagnosis of Stage 2b breast cancer.
My mother had had breast cancer and so did her only sister and my father’s only sister. That’s why I’d had mammograms every year since I was 35. Given my family history, I wasn’t surprised by a diagnosis of breast cancer in 1995. But all my relatives had been in their late 50s or early 60s when they were diagnosed — and I was only 45. My daughter was 13 and my son 9.
Since then, for someone who thought she would die in her 40s and miss seeing her children grow up, I’ve been incredibly fortunate.
Over the next five days I’m going to be blogging excerpts from the journal I kept during my diagnosis (which were previously published in the Dallas Morning News). It’s a way of reminding myself how lucky I’ve been and thinking about so many friends who haven’t been nearly as fortunate.
For me, these journal entries are a return to a very difficult time in my past; for the more than 200,000 women who will be diagnosed with breast cancer this year, they represent the present. Not that much has changed in the past 15 years.
If you would like to contribute to a local organization that makes a difference in breast cancer survivors’ lives, I’d highly recommend Austin’s Breast Cancer Resource Center
Monday, Sept. 11, 1995
I have breast cancer.
I’ve now lost count of how many people I’ve said that to. At first, I made myself say it so I’d hear it and believe it. Otherwise, it wasn’t real and I might forget. Later, I realized I was repeating the news because — strangely — it gave me something else to focus on. I could concentrate on how the other person reacted. What kind of person was I telling this to? How much did he care about me? How sensitive was she? This way, I could look at the other person, instead of myself. I wasn’t left alone.
After I got my diagnosis, I slept badly Friday night. I got up early and went into the bathroom and washed my hair. Then I stood and stared at my body in the mirror. It looked so strong and healthy. But I knew that was a lie. I wasn’t as strong and healthy as I’d thought.
My breasts have always been small and flat. They aren’t perfect or gorgeous, but they’re mine and we’ve been together a long time. But we’re about to go our separate ways. When my husband and I saw Dr. K, my surgeon, today, he began to tell me about my options for surgery. I stopped him.
“I’ve already decided,” I said. “You don’t have to explain anything. I want a double mastectomy.”
It was an easy decision for me. This is my life and my choice. I want everything gone. I don’t want anything left where cancer could grow. I don’t know how I’d feel if I had cancer in a vital organ like my liver — whether I’d feel the same sense of alienation I do with my breasts.
So, on Monday, Sept. 18, I’m going to have surgery and lose both my breasts. And then — well, I don’t know what will happen. What do they do with parts of your body after they cut them off and analyze them? How do they dispose of them?
That makes me think of a great scene in the movie Fried Green Tomatoes, where they had a burial and graveside service for a boy’s amputated arm. Shouldn’t my breasts get a proper burial, too?
Tuesday, Sept. 12
I’ve asked a friend, Janet, to be an honorary “aunt” for our daughter. I want her to have another woman she can turn to when I’m less available. She won’t be able to get directly angry at me and I want her to be able to talk about that with someone else.
Already, it’s hard for her to talk to me. She talks more to my husband and asks him questions. Last week, she asked him if I were going to die and he said no, he didn’t think so.
Our son’s at a less-demanding age, but I worry about him, too. Last night, he and I lay on the bed in my room and talked. He asked me about the surgery and I told him the doctors would be removing my breasts. Then he asked why people got cancer and I told him it was all very complicated and mysterious. In some cases, it’s a weakness we’re born with. I know he’s especially concerned because of a friend’s father who died from Hodgkin’s disease three years ago.
For myself, I’m scared that something will happen to me. For my children, I’m even more scared. I don’t want to be ripped out of their lives.
Yesterday, the doorbell rang and it was a woman who lives a few blocks away. She was bringing me a card and a journal to write in. More than anything, I could tell, she desperately wanted me to be more positive and life-affirming — and right now, there’s no way on earth I could do it.
Why can’t anyone understand me? I’m handling this the only way I can. I’m finding my own way, slowly and painfully. Thanks for your sentiments, your cards and letters and suggestions – but they all involve directions I may or may not take. Help me in the way I’m choosing to go, not in the way you want me to go. I won’t be the cancer patient you want me to be.
Be positive. Fight it. Your attitude is everything.
First, you get diagnosed with cancer, then you feel like you have to pass a character test as a cancer patient. There’s a prescribed way I should be reacting and, if I’m not meeting those expectations, people want to help me readjust my attitude and realign my soul.
I’ve crossed a line. I’m living somewhere else. I can remember so vividly seeing a friend of mine after she’d been diagnosed with cancer last year. I felt awkward and kept wondering what to say. To me she had become someone else, someone with breast cancer. And that’s what I’ve become to other people who don’t know me well. My husband says I’m a walking Rorschach test for others’ projections and insecurities. I’m a source of awkwardness and pity and the carrier of a disease. I’ve crossed that magical line and I’m different.
(Copyright 2010 by Ruth Pennebaker)
Read one of my favorite posts about here is how it will happen to you