If you’re old enough, you remember where you were during the Kennedy assassination (I was in kindergarten and we were sent home early that day). And even if you’re youngish, you’ll remember where you were during the 9-11 attacks (I was in law school and we were sent home early that day).
Cancer patients and survivors have their own sets of terrible anniversaries. For many it’s diagnosis day. Each time it comes around on the calendar, there are sad remembrances and a look back in the rear view mirror at all that has happened since.
My diagnosis day was November 9, 2011. I’d had an intuitive feeling of foreboding all that year. Then, in late October, when the radiology doctor told me he’d found “something new, a mass,” I knew what it was, though he wouldn’t confirm it – maybe it wasn’t true – until they could do a needle biopsy and test cells in a lab.
There are so many women getting breast cancer in the East bay that the treatment paths are well-trodden. Once there’s a mammogram requiring further tests, the primary care doctor is notified. Mine called me and told me all the reasons why it might not be what we feared. She would be the one to receive and deliver the results of the biopsy either way. She would call me as soon as she knew.
The waiting is the worst. A fertile mind spins out every manner of scenarios. There is no arguing with this mind. I waited in absolute terror for what I knew in my gut was the case.
And, so, just as I recall my kindergarten self on November 22, 1963 and my grown-up law student self on September 11, 2001, I recall exactly what I was doing on November 9, 2011.
I had a client that morning who was helpful. He’s a psychotherapist, and he was able to accommodate my fear while we talked about his estate plan. He gave me one of the best pieces of advice I heard during the whole ordeal: “Stay away from anyone who hasn’t dealt with their own fear.”
Within an hour after he left, I was sitting in my office chair when the phone rang, and I could see on caller ID that it was my doctor. “Sara,” she said, and I could hear her voice trembling. “It’s cancer.”
I threw the phone on the desk and screamed. “No!” She waited.
I picked the phone back up and I screamed into it. “No!” She tried to console me. She’d already set up an appointment with a surgeon. “No! I can’t do this! I can’t do this!” I screamed over and over and over, and she started screaming back at me: “You will do this! You will do this!”
Did I have any family support, she asked. I told her I had none. She told me to gather any friends I had and to ask for help.
A couple of my erstwhile friends had been on the hot seat with me, waiting for the lab results, telling me not to worry, it was probably nothing.
I called S, and she pledged to do anything to help and to be by her phone as soon as I could get home. Then I called J who lived near my office, and she said she’d ride over on her bike right away.
J came jostling into my office all cheerful, insisting, “It’s probably nothing!” “No, J,” I said. “It’s not nothing. It’s cancer. Believe it.” “Oh, well,” she said, “I thought you were just being a drama queen.”
I somehow made my way home and sat in blank silence. What am I supposed to do? By nature I want to do and fix. I started making lists of what I should “do” and who I should call for help.
H was another friend who’d been in the loop about my bad mammogram and pending news. I called her.
“Well,” she huffed, “this is all the result of your living such a stressful lifestyle.” Huh? I got off the phone quickly.
But I called H again a few days later. By now she had developed an elaborate theory about how I had caused my own cancer. I got off the phone quickly. I never called her back and never heard from her again.
It was quickly dawning on me that my client’s advice was good: Stay away from anyone who hasn’t dealt with her own fear.
I had a few more conversations with J. She continued to insist that this was “really, nothing,” as she drove me to my first MRI, a test to see if the cancer had already spread.
When I stumbled out of the dressing room, zonked from having been face down in the MRI machine for 45 minutes, and from Xanax to control my anxiety, she burst out laughing. “You should see what you look like!”
Then J called me the night before my first surgery to tell me she’d learned to text on her new I-phone and to harangue me about why I was making “such a big deal out of a little breast tissue.” I told her to go away and not come back. But she didn’t just go away. She sent a hideous email claiming I had taken advantage of her by asking her to drive me to an appointment.
And so it went.
I got the best medical treatment anyone could ask for.
All the while, there was the side drama in which I was learning – and learning and learning – that there was something about many of the people I had surrounded myself with that was just plain rotten. I let them all go.
Cancer was no “gift,” but the purging of what once was my social life was, I believe, something that was long overdue.
People who do not know cancer may think it’s over when the chemo and radiation stop. The truth is, it’s never over. Recurrence can happen at any time and one lives with that awareness. Five years, ten years, it doesn’t matter.
Cancer has taken a huge toll on my finances. There are perpetual MRIs, mammograms, blood and bone density tests, prescription anti-cancer meds, other meds to counteract the side effects of the first meds. Insurance does not cover it all. Insurance does not at all cover the acupuncture, herbs, supplements, cannabadiol oil, massage.
Four years on, I feel great.
I now have just a few good friends, the number of which I can count on one hand. I have neighbors who were there for me and who I feel a continuing bond with.
I adopted a canine angel named Maggie and became a “dog person.”
My hair is long and silver, just as I want it.
And I learned a few things. I learned to never again spend time with people who diss me and don’t really like me, to get away from them, pronto. I learned to be very selective about the use of my time which, in a sense, is all I have.
The clearing out process opened a void through which I discovered a new passion, which is astrology. I am now spending most of my free time studying it, with some brilliant teachers scattered all over. I’m going to start attending astrology conferences to learn and make connections with other starry ones and, before too long, I’ll offer readings. Astrology is, among other things, a sacred, healing art, and I am drawn to anything that is sacred and healing.
As I sat before dawn the morning I wrote this post, I saw out the sliding glass door a spectacular sight, and I stepped out into the garden to take it in. There, in the pitch dark sky, the planets Venus and Jupiter were in an unusual near conjunction, blinking brightly. (Mars was right there, too, but not so visible.)
It was as if they were speaking to me directly. They seemed to say: We are with you forever, and all is well.