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Following quickly upon the shock of a cancer diagnosis is the unsavoury prospect of telling friends and family. Already it’s not just about you, it’s a social thing. Being naturally introverted and habitually private, I shied away from the inevitable conversations with a superstitious fear, I suppose, that revealing my secret aloud would only confirm the depressing reality.
Today, from a more comfortable perspective, having so far survived not just the cancer but the treatment, I look back on one friend’s response to my carcinomic “coming out” with fondness and amusement. I think it may serve as a model for anyone just handed the “shock and awe” of bad news who is suddenly struggling for consolatory words.
I had gone for a bike ride along my local stretch of Calgary’s exceptional river pathway, processing this new version of myself – a cancer patient. Patient, victim, unwilling host. What to call it? Physically, I felt no different. Despite various unhappy joints, if you had asked me to describe myself, I would have said healthy, fit, a darned good specimen for 55. Maybe even – on a good day – for 45!
The only change on this lovely afternoon was a diagnosis of Stage 2 invasive ductal carcinoma, the most common form of breast cancer. Left untreated, it would kill me sooner rather than later. A plan had been neatly laid out: chemo (six months’ worth); surgery (tumour and lymph node removal); and radiation, followed by five years of hormonal assault via daily pill. Poison/slash/burn/starve – the full arsenal.
I was just killing time on the bike path, as it were, awaiting call-up to the blitzkrieg.
Don’t get me wrong. I knew bad things, much much worse than this, happened all over, all the time. In fact, in some ways I couldn’t have had it better. Thanks to generous funding, breast cancer is one of the least scary forms. If worse came to worst, well, I’d had a good half-century. And as for frequent trips to the cancer centre, I didn’t even face the age-old stress of parking – it’s a 10-minute walk from my house.
Still, grateful as I was for the science and technology that would allow me another chance at what I had assumed would be the second half of my life, I couldn’t help feeling … well … cheated.
Why? I’d always been active – ballet, cross-country skiing, running, hiking, cycling, backcountry skiing and canoeing in my teens and twenties; modified versions of these, fitted around child raising, in the following two decades; verging, in my fifties, into joint-saving swimming, cycling, more cross-country skiing and classes in Pilates, strength and dance.
Moreover, I’d eaten well. I shopped the perimeter. Gave up sweets, quite happily, for about a decade. Hell, I was even careful not to be too careful, occasionally indulging – in moderation. “Everything in your cart is so healthy!” declared someone in line at the grocery store some years ago. The contents haven’t changed much since.
You get the picture. And so you may also get my disappointment when, in middle age, having done everything supposedly right, I still failed to dodge the Reaper’s shadow.
Like motherhood, a cancer diagnosis invariably brings on advice. I’ve had well-meaning invitations to meditate or yog-ify, journal, join a group, change my diet, change my life. And this barrage is not limited to cures. There’s an abundance of causal accounting – beyond the traditional risk factors of genetics, poor diet or dearth of exercise, I mean.
“Too much inflammation in the body,” one intelligent, well-read friend pronounced. “Leaky gut,” intimated someone else. Unresolved grief, modern wheat, a dearth of laughter, air pollution, pesticides. One authoritative author presents a persuasive case for stress as the root of our chronic ills, and breast cancer as a manifestation of anger long suppressed. One is swayed.
Especially in the dog days of first diagnosis, such well-meant counsel made me feel like the condemned, mounting the gallows steps, having thrust into my hand a two-for-one coupon for massage and talk therapy.
Which brings me to that bike-path encounter last spring. This friend is an unusual mixture: sensitive visual artist on one hand and rugged mountaineer on the other. Ten years my senior, he rides his bike everywhere, all year round. He still clambers up and skis down those peaks in the distance. All in all, an in-your-face guy who says what he means.
When we recognize each other beneath the helmets and brake to chat, I have just the one thing on my mind: myself, my diagnosis, my life a fragile thing. We bat around a few pleasantries until I can’t stand it and I blurt.
There, I’ve said it, I’ve told him. His jaw drops.
“DUCK!” he shouts (first consonant altered for family publication). “Duck! Duck! Duck! Duck! Duck!”
Yesss! He’s captured it.
I feel immediate immeasurable relief. It’s what I’ve wanted to shout myself – in the doctor’s office, in the ultrasound/biopsy/ECT/MRI clinics, at all those hushed reception desks in all those demure waiting rooms. But of course I’m too polite. Too female. Too middle-aged. Too Canadian. Too … suppressed. Maybe that anger theory guy is right.
Judy Millar lives in Calgary.