Monday, April 8, 2013

Stages of Comparison

Tonight, I'm turning back to my "10 Things I've Learned From Cancer" list that I first posted a few weeks ago. I've got some things to say about #3.

Number 3 on the list is not the original #3. Number 3 changed a few days ago when something hit me square in the fuzzy brain and I panicked that my list had neglected a lesson as important as this one. As soon as I could, I logged in to edit the post. I changed the old #3 (People with cancer don't always know a lot about their cancer.) to the new #3 (Be very careful when comparing cancer stories.). When I made this edit, I kind of felt like I was changing an answer on the SAT or the bar exam after the proctor had announced, Pencils down. My anxiety quickly subsided, however, when I realized that maaaybe two people would notice that I had made the change (and I'm likely one of them). Everyone else probably read the first sentence of this post and thought, That list again? I thought we were done with that. But like I tell a waitress when she tries to take my plate away too early, Nope, sorry, I'm still working on that. 

3. Be very careful when comparing cancer stories.

This past Saturday, Teddy and I drove into Dana-Farber. My therapy lady had invited me to provide a patient's perspective at a workshop that she was leading at a conference for young adults with cancer. Since my surgery was just days before, I told her I'd play it by ear, but when I woke up on Saturday able to see clearly, I was ready to get out of the house even if it meant driving into my favorite cancer center. 

I probably wouldn't have ended up going if Teddy hadn't wanted to come too, but he was excited to drive into Boston (I told him we'd take the windy road) and he was curious about the place I go every few weeks for my medicine. I thought it was the perfect chance to make this crazy part of my life seem normal to him. 

On the drive in, I had some precious time with my little guy. We talked a lot about baseball and we sang to some of his favorite tunes (he loves himself some Lady Gaga). In one of my favorite moments, Teddy asked me if Keegan's mom was going to be at the meeting. Keegan is the three-year-old son of my friend, Kristin, and I'm almost certain that even at three, this adorable little tyke is a key part of Teddy's comfort with my cancer. Obviously I don't know what's going through my son's head, but I think consciously or subconsciously, there could be something like this -- If my mom isn't the only mom who has breast cancer then breast cancer is OK. I could definitely be wrong about this, but I feel pretty confident that I'm not totally off-base. 

Teddy's question made me realize that when it comes to cancer, I may be a lot like my five-year-old son. Here's why. Interestingly, it has a lot to do with both #3s. 

This past Saturday, I wrote that I'm working to put cancer in my rearview mirror, and that as I drive away from it, in many ways, it's getting clearer. Maybe I have a sick need to revisit some dark times, maybe I think that if I make sense of those times then I can tuck them away for good, or maybe this story just popped in my head because it connects so perfectly to the #3s on my list. I don't know. Nonetheless, I feel compelled to write about a terrible night that I had back in September. 

I don't remember the exact date and I've never even drafted an unpublished blog about this night. I do remember, however, that it came in the throes of the chemotherapy-decision-making time -- that week or so after Dr. Bunnell had presented us with different options for treatment, but before we had made our final decision to go with Option #2. We were still celebrating the news that the cancer hadn't spread to my lymph nodes, but I was still haunted by Dr. Bunnell's drawing of the HER2 protein attacking a healthy cell. 

It was just before October (breast cancer awareness month) and Kristin posted something on Facebook about her breast cancer story. Selfishly, I remember very little of what she wrote in that post except for one thing, and I remember that thing as clear as the day -- Kristin wrote that she had Stage 1 breast cancer. 

Let me confess -- I have never told Kristin about this night and I am not proud of what I am about to write. But this is the truth and I've found that putting the truth out there, however ugly it is, somehow, helps. 

When I read that word (Stage) and that number (1), I burst out into quiet, uncontrollable tears. 

So here's where the old #3 comes in. After my surgery, I figured that Dr. Bunnell would tell me the stage of my cancer as if it were the most important number that had ever been revealed to me; that he may even hold up the number like Bruno Tonioli announces his Dancing with the Stars score (without the triumphant other fist, of course). But it turned out that Dr. Bunnell never told me the number and I sure as heck wasn't going to look at my pathology report. That would just be fuel for future nightmares and I didn't need any more of that. 

I did, however, remember Dr. Bunnell explaining that I had a "Grade 2 tumor" and me being medically trained as I am (I took a liberal-artsy bio class my freshman year at Bowdoin), I figured that meant I had Stage 2 breast cancer. 

Here's where the acting like a five-year-old, as well as my new #3, comes in. When I thought that Kristin had a lesser stage cancer than I did, I completely freaked. Like completely. Freaked. 

Of course, I didn't want her cancer to be Stage 2 also, but I had never thought through what it would feel like to have it worse than the person whose path I was following. Did this mean that our paths would diverge? Did this mean that she would be fine and I would not? That her kids would have a mother and mine would not? I couldn't control my tears. 

Somehow (mainly because I think she has a magical power), my Mom called as I sat at my computer bawling my eyes out. I remember relocating to my healing chair as I wailed to her in incomplete sentences that she somehow pieced together. Brian had also joined me, having come downstairs after my quiet cries had turned to hysterical ones. 

I wept to the two of them that maybe I should go with Option #3. I compared Kristin's treatment to my own options. If her's is Stage 1 and mine is Stage 2, I should at least get what she had! Maybe Dr. Bunnell didn't tell me the stage because he knew I would totally lose it. I don't even remember most of the other stuff I said that night as my boogers and tears fell all over the phone. I was so confused and so, so scared. 

As my wailing started to get repetitive, Brian got up. I heard him rummaging through papers and clicking away at the computer. About five minutes later, he appeared in front of me to explain his argument that my cancer was, in fact, Stage 1. I love my husband, not only because he has the courage to Google, but because he knows me enough to know exactly what to Google and when to Google it. 

Here's the funny thing -- I still am not certain of what stage my cancer is was (hence, the old #3). I feel pretty confident that Brian wasn't making up stuff that night way back when, mainly because he sounded really sure of what he said and I don't think he could have come up with all of that medical jargon in such a short time (and while he listened to me have a mental breakdown in the background). I guess I always figured that people with cancer know everything about their condition. But not fraidy-cats like me. We don't know squat. 

So, for my new #3 -- be careful when comparing cancer stories. On the one hand, survivor stories give me my most powerful doses of hope and inspiration. But there's another (very sharp) edge to that sword. 

Of course, I worry what Kristin will think when she reads this post. Being the most kind and selfless person that she is, I worry that she will think she did something that hurt me. Of course, that couldn't be further from the truth. 

The truth is, that at some point in telling my story, I have probably sent someone else into a tailspin like the one I experienced last September. It probably didn't have to do with the stage of my cancer, but there could have been so many other things. Please know that if I caused any pain, I did it with the amount of mal-intent that Kristin had in that Facebook post -- less than nil

So here's where I'll leave off on this ever-so-lengthy #3 on my list. Often, I don't mind comparing myself to others and I think that healthy competition is a really good thing. I don't believe in eliminating class rank in high schools and I like it when youth sports award first, second, and third places. But cancer is different. Cancer isn't about not getting a ribbon. It's about not getting a next birthday. And that's pretty freaking terrifying. No matter what the stage. 

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