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October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Pink ribbons.
I hold nothing against the belief that "pinkness" will result in positive change, but for me it is a constant reminder of a past that I would like to move beyond.
At 38, my life had reached a point of career achievement, a promising relationship, stable family dynamics and a glass way more than half full – until I found a lump in my right breast with accompanying pain in my right armpit. Coincidentally, I had a doctor's appointment the next day.
"It's probably nothing," he said. "Most lumps are cysts."
My mother is a breast cancer survivor, so he sent me for a mammogram. I thought a cyst could wait, so I made an appointment three weeks hence.
The mammogram hurt like hell. Imagine squeezing my G-cup into a flat surface less than one centimetre thick. If we did this to testicles, the test would be less painful.
Inconclusive results, probably a cyst. A biopsy was scheduled because of my "family history." Googling assured me that fewer than 3 per cent of breast cancer diagnoses were for women under 40.
The "needle punch biopsy" hurt like hell. The technician and the doctor couldn't discuss diagnoses and wished me luck when I left. Despite all of the reassurances and all of the statistics, I knew.
The biopsy was Thursday, the diagnosis came Tuesday. There is nothing in life that prepares you for, "I'm sorry, you have cancer." I felt as if I had been kicked in the stomach, and I struggled to breathe. I barely made it through a mandatory presurgery chest X-ray that day. I kept it together long enough to call my mother. She was stoical.
I felt sorry for myself for 1 hour and 17 minutes. I realized that although I'd had a few disappointments in my life, I had absolutely no regrets. Then I got on the treadmill and got on with my life.
I told my partner, and that day we decided we would elope three weeks later, in between my lumpectomy and my sentinel node biopsy. Everyone deserves to get married with hair. Eloping was a wonderful diversion.
I decided to tell no one unless they needed to know: No pink ribbons, no time off work, no proud photos of my bald head, no requests for people to shave their heads in sympathy, no "-thons" to raise money. My grandfather, my stepchildren, most of my friends and most of my colleagues were not told.
My cancer became a game, the primary goal of which was to keep things as normal as possible. I bought a wig before my hair fell out, and shaved my head to avoid the trauma of it falling out in clumps. The game also involved keeping a numerical tally of all the people who saw at least one of my naked breasts as part of my medical treatment. Eleven years post-diagnosis, the tally is 84.
What astonished me was that no one figured it out. Most days, I felt as if I was walking around with a cartoon bubble over my head that said "I have cancer." But no one guessed.
I didn't miss a day of work. I persuaded the oncologist to schedule my chemo for Fridays and my radiation treatments after 2 p.m., so I could continue in my normal routine.
Among the amusing things I learned were:
A bald head feels good, and it saves a lot of time to just put on your hair rather than washing and styling it;
Holding on to your wig on the airport tarmac on a windy day is a good idea; human-hair wigs are better, even though they are more expensive – checking on the roast and adding a log to the fire both caused my synthetic wigs to melt;
You lose your modesty because medical personnel are not gender-specific;
You can skip reading articles that tell you how to prevent cancer and laugh out loud instead.
More profoundly, I realized that I often wanted details about other people's medical situations. But I now believe that other people's medical stuff is highly private, and every cancer treatment plan is different.
Support groups work well for people who want support, but I find that telling my story causes me to relive it. Telling people also would have meant diverting my energy to them when I needed it for me. I would feel like the supporter, not the supported.
People don't know what to say, or how to help, when you have cancer. Sometimes, in an effort to be helpful, they tell stories with unhappy endings. That is not helpful.
As for the marriage, it was great – while it lasted. Nothing acrimonious to report, but I know now that, for me, every day needs to have as much joy as possible.
I don't Run for the Cure because it would draw me back to a dark place and time. I am so very grateful to the people who saved my life, so I make large donations directly to organizations working on cures.
I will be turning 50 this November. I'm going to Paris, which is where they sent my tumour as part of a global study. I have often imagined the tumour, on the Left Bank, wearing a beret, smoking a cigarette. The tumour doesn't wear a pink ribbon.
Pink ribbons remind me of the past, not the future.
Karen Dexter lives in Wolfville, N.S.