“I’m glad to see you looking so healthy!”
I heard this a comment from a number of people I hadn’t seen in quite awhile when I went back to Boston for a short visit. I appreciated the compliment, of course, but was also a little taken aback. Why wouldn’t I look healthy? I’d just spent most of the last 8 months in the Caribbean on a sailboat! See the tan?
Upon reflection, however, the comments made sense. They were talking about my breast cancer.
And this was a bit odd for me, because when I think of cancer these days, my mind asks, “Did I really have breast cancer?” The diagnosis, the surgery, the chemo, the radiation, the reconstruction, the tattoo—the whole shebang that took almost two years from beginning to end, seems like a nightmare that I woke from long ago.
Did I really have cancer? I did, I know. I know it changed me, but did not define me. But I don’t dwell on it, actually, I don’t think about it much at all. My post cancer life is filled with excitement, work, distraction, and rum punch. There is no room for cancer.
Last week, a few people forwarded me a NY Times article entitled, “Good News For Women With Breast Cancer: Many Don’t Need Chemo.” The article explained that new research confirmed that women with breast cancer, with an intermediate Oncotype gene test score between 11 and 25, may not benefit from chemo, if the cancer has not spread to the lymph nodes (mine had).
My friend Jennifer called to talk to me about the article, because she knew I must have seen it, and she knew that whether or not to proceed with the chemo, given my intermediate test score, was an agonizing decision. I’ll never know if it was the right decision, and that is ok. I’m well beyond that now.
But a piece of my conversation with Jennifer really amazed me- the piece where I couldn’t remember a thing about the test- not the name of the test, nor the results of the test, even though for an agonizing two weeks it was all I thought of.
“What was the name of the gene test they do?” she asked me.
“I don’t remember,” I admitted, a little ashamed by my lapse in memory, “but I remember I was in the middle with the results.”
“I think it was called the Anka test,” she told me. She was very close. You say Onco, she says Anka, we both knew what she was talking about.
“That’s it!” I exclaimed. “The Anka test!”
“What was your number?”
“I think it was 18.”
“I think you were at 11, right at the border.”
“You may be right. But I thought it was 18.” 18 is a special number, meaning “life” in Judaism. If my score had been 18, how would I have not remembered that irony? I started to think she must be right.
In actuality, my score was 20. I had to go back and look it up. I don’t blame Jennifer for not remembering my score, but how could I have forgotten it? My score had consumed me.
What is it that allows someone to put a really difficult part of their lives away, to have large lapses of memory of the very best kind, to protect the mind and soul? I’m not sure what it is about my particular emotional makeup that allows me to do this, but I’m happy to be protected this way. I am blessed to have a brain that has allowed me to put those two years in a box, file it away in my mind under “S” for things that Sucked, and not open it again unless I have to. And I don’t have to, not now.
Recently, I received very sad news from a close relative and a close friend- one diagnosed with cancer, and one who will be getting divorced after a very long marriage. I love them both.
My wish for both of them is strength through these very hard months and perhaps years ahead, and that over time, they will each be able to put these difficult times in a box in their mind, file it away under “S” for things that Sucked, and to be able to forget the misery, at least the worst of it. My hope is that at some point in the future, when someone comments, “you look so happy!” or “you look so healthy!” they will be pleased at the compliment, while at the same time wondering, “Why wouldn’t I be?”