If you've turned on your TV or radio, or left your house any time in the last month, you probably already know that October is breast cancer awareness month. In prior Octobers, I remember being amazed by the efforts of so many individuals, non-profits, and businesses to raise awareness about this disease. I remember my town's high school soccer team wearing pink socks during games, NFL quarterbacks wiping their sweat on pink towels, friends asking for pledges for charity walks, and retail sales people offering me discounts in exchange for a donation. As I handed over my relatively small contributions, I remember thinking how lucky I was to not have breast cancer. And I hate the disease even more when I realize that in fact, at least during the most recent Octobers, the awful disease lurked inside of me, probably laughing an evil chuckle when it heard me think otherwise.
Indeed, in October, breast cancer seems to be everywhere we turn. Of course, I only need to look down to see the effects of breast cancer, and that worried sick feeling is usually just a short thought away, if it isn't already in the pit of my stomach. Plus, I'm scheduled start chemo this Wednesday, October 3rd, and I'm guessing the side effects of that will give me a constant reminder of this dreaded disease. (With ambivalence, I am hoping I can start my treatments this week. However, I have been having a slight problem with the incision on my left breast and if it doesn't heal properly before then, Dr. Chun said I'll need to delay the chemo one week. My body may not be able to heal itself once the chemo starts so I need to go into this all scabbed up.)
Like chemo, I have some ambivalence about this October. On the one hand, it scares me. I feel like I have built a little cancer cocoon around myself -- I know what helps me and I know what brings me to dark places. For instance, I am still terrified to learn other breast cancer stories unless they are stories of wild success. Otherwise, along with the grief I feel for that family, at best, my mind will just stash that story away and one night or early morning, find it again, only to twist it into some tragic one for me. It's still hard for me to know that my cancer is more aggressive than other people's, because I start to wonder what side of a statistic I could fall. Then I just end up feeling like the most awful person in the world, and wondering if some higher being is ready to punish me for thinking of human beings on sides of a statistic (a statistic that I don't even know, by the way).
I knew I wasn't ready to talk to other women about their breast cancer but nonetheless, I engaged a conversation in the bathroom at Dana Farber last week. A middle-aged woman was washing her hands next to me, and clearly her hair was just growing back after chemo. I told her that it looked great because it did. She thanked me proceeded to tell me that she'd lost it twice, since that's how many times her cancer had returned. I wanted to run back in the stall and vomit at the thought that I could have to go through this all over again, and next time without the hope for a cure. Still, I smiled, dried my hands, and wrapped up that conversation. And I realized, I'm not ready for some things just yet.
It's probably no surprise that I am also enormously sensitive to any story about someone dying from cancer. And it's not something that's easy to avoid. Again, I feel so selfish trying to keep stories that are otherwise so important out of my little cocoon, but I just can't handle them right now. So in this selfish sense, October's going to be a tough one. Because I have to find a way to hear the words, "in memory of," and not have that split second of wondering if my name will one day complete that sentence.
So with that thought, I think we need a little pick-me-up, and the beauty of how far I've come in the last few months is that I really can pick myself up from those dark places. Sometimes, I can even let bad thoughts just pass right through my brain, never registering long enough to bring me into darkness. I have no idea if that's the effect of medication, but I'd like to think it's partly me. If it is the medication, we can't thank Zoloft, either. Now we'll need to thank Effexor. Dr. Bunnell switched me over last week. Something about a study (that apparently has been largely debunked) that Zoloft can somehow interfere with Tamoxifen. I couldn't really follow all he was saying, but I loved that even after he had already spent over an hour with us, he still pulled out the foot rest of the exam table to put his feet up and tell us all about it. And most of all I loved that even though he thought the risk of staying on the Zoloft was as small as "a spit in the ocean," he wasn't going to take the chance. Add him to the growing list of my life-saving heros.
Like usual, I've gotten off track, but back to October. Yes, I'm scared of it. But I'm also so sincerely excited and grateful for it. Because I honestly believe that Octobers saved my life.
I'm so predictable, but you know I need to insert a story. This one may even sound repetitive to anyone who attended the Bowdoin College graduation in 2002, because I spoke about it then. (Somehow I won the speech-writing contest and got to speak at graduation.) My Mom told me this story, and despite that we have no idea if it originated from any real event, we love it nonetheless:
A woman is walking down the street when she comes across three men who are laying brick. The woman asks the first man, "What are you doing?" and he replies, "I am laying brick." She asks the second man, "What are you doing?" He replies, "I'm building a wall." Finally, the woman asks the third man, "What are you doing?" "I'm building a cathedral," he answers.
I don't do any medical research in my little cocoon, but from what I have gathered from information I have not been able to avoid, Herceptin will save my life. Dr. Bunnell has explained to me that I got my type of cancer at the "right time," and I don't have to read between the lines to understand that if I had been diagnosed with this cancer a decade ago, I probably wouldn't have made it. That's why my Mom "prays to the Herceptin gods" every night.
I often send up a prayer to the Herceptin gods, too. But I spend more time thinking about bricks and cathedrals. I think about the scientists in a lab somewhere working on a complex theory about a protein, or a cell, or something else I could barely understand. I think about the high school biology students who will decide, I want to be a cancer doctor. These people have worked so hard and will work so hard, often feeling like they are laying brick. People like me may be a distant thought to them. But they are not a distant thought to me. Often, those nameless, faceless individuals are exactly who I think of when I kiss my kids goodnight.
Lately, I also think about Octobers. Because to me, one step at a breast cancer charity walk is not just a foot on the pavement. It's my daughter's fourth birthday. A pink sock at a soccer game is not just a change in uniform. It's my son's first at bat in little league. Tom Brady's sweat on a pink towel is not just cute. It's the champagne toast Brian and I will enjoy at the Spruce Point Inn on our 10th wedding anniversary. Every dollar that is handed over at Ann Taylor this October is another shopping trip I'll get with my Mom or my sister. And every second of attention that is paid to breast cancer this month is one more second that women like me will enjoy with the ones we love.
You may think that this October's steps and socks and dollars and time are just bricks. But trust me, they are not. They are breathtaking cathedrals, and over the last few decades, I didn't even know that so many people were busy building them. Now, for all that hard work in labs, and classrooms, and behind-the-scenes of charity events (among so many other places), I can only say, Thank You. And I mean those two words with every single cancer-free cell in my healing little body.