Anyone who has had cancer, no matter how many years have passed, knows you are never “cured.” The best anyone can say is “so far, so good.” Cancer isn’t a single disease. There is no test to tell you your body is free of cancer cells.

This is, of course, true of everyone from birth till death, but when you have had a run in with cancer, it stops being theoretical and morphs into something more sinister and personal. In 2010, I had a double mastectomy, losing both breasts to cancer. It wasn’t a prophylactic double mastectomy. I actually had cancer in both breasts. Two unrelated tumors at the same time. The odds against getting breast cancer in both breasts simultaneously are incredibly small. I seem to be one of the those people who manages to beat normal odds — not in a good way.


After the mastectomies, I got instant reconstruction. Two silicon implants replaced my breasts. They do not, as people imagine, look like real breasts. When you are in the tunnel through breast cancer to (hopefully) recovery, you find yourself answering weird questions. Like “how large do you want them to be?” Do you want nipples? Saline or silicon?

I went with smallish and no nipples (they require two extra surgeries and they are entirely for appearance), and silicon, which feels more real. I suppose it’s all for appearance, really — the appearance of womanhood matters when the parts have been replaced with something that isn’t real flesh.

Everything went well — or as well as these things ever go. I hoped I was done with cancer. Imagine my surprise when I realized there was something hard underneath the scar across my right implant. Flat, hard. My first reaction was “What the hell?” Can I get breast cancer without breasts?


I hit the Internet to discover it is probably scar tissue. Or (unlikely but not impossible) a very rare form of skin cancer that grows directly under the mastectomy scar. Rare isn’t impossible. Not in my world, so reluctantly, I made an appointment at the Dana-Farber. It is the only dedicated cancer facility in Worcester County and has been where I’ve done all my follow-up since the surgery.

I had my surgery and reconstruction at the Faulkner Hospital in Boston. My surgeon and plastic reconstruction surgeon are the best. Anywhere. Literally described by my local oncologist calls “the dream team,” If you have breast cancer, this is as good as it gets and if life throws this at you, I strongly advise you to find the best surgeons, even if they aren’t convenient. You want to get this right the first time.

My oncologist thinks, as I do, that it’s nothing to get excited about, but we’ll watch it. If it seems to be growing, or starts hurting, we’ll move on to testing. In the meantime, I take a deep breath and can return to worrying about the lunatic pretending to be President who seems intent on making my personal angst irrelevant by blowing up the world.

As this was going on, I have been reading. A lot. Most of the books have been lackluster, to put it kindly. Life and Other Near-Death Experiences: A Novel by Camille Pagan grabbed me from the first page and kept me engaged to the end, wishing that it wouldn’t end. Which is a pretty unusual thing to say considering the book is about a young woman who discovers she has a very rare, aggressive form of cancer and her marriage comes unglued — at the same time. Literally, both things hitting her on the same day.

life-and-other-near-death-experiences-coverWhat takes the book out of the ordinary from other books that deal with life and death, is it never takes the easy way out. No cheap or easy solutions. It confronts real-life decisions that people in major life crises are forced to make. It does so with humor, wit, and realism.

The main character of the story freaks out when her life falls apart and needs time plus substantial support from family and friends to face her new reality. It’s the most realistic story about dealing with cancer I’ve read and it wasn’t depressing. Not a guffaw filled romp or a vale of tears. It reminded me that how we react to appalling news varies, but we all react. You cannot fail to be changed by facing death while realizing there’s no guarantee you’ll beat it, no matter what you do.

Once you’ve had any medical crisis that will kill you left untreated and might kill you anyway, even with treatment, you never look at life the same way. You don’t take life as a given. None of us should ever take life for granted, but most of us do. Until we come face to face with the dark angel and he’s holding our number.

This is a good book. A surprisingly good book. I hope it will get some attention. It is lumped into the category of “humor” where it doesn’t exactly fit … but I’m not sure where it would fit. Maybe humor is as good as any other placement.

Regardless, any book that can make you laugh in the face of death is worth a read.

Categories: Book Review, Health, Humor, Life, Medical, Photography

Tags: , , , , , ,

30 replies

  1. Glad to hear it is probably scar tissue and I commend your ability to “get through” what you have had to get through with such a positive attitude Marilyn.


    • Negativity drags you down. I have problems I can’t talk or medicate away, but gloom is a waste of energy and depression is contagious. If you are always bummed, you drag down everyone who loves you. I hide out in books and I write. I have no idea what I would do if I didn’t write. It has been a safety valve my whole life.

      In the end, we do the best we can. Some of us are more successful than others. Besides … what other choice do we have?

      Liked by 1 person

  2. A few months after I had cancer surgery on my liver/small intestine, I felt a weird lump and thought it was scar tissue. Turns out it is a post-surgical hernia. Next week I talk to my oncologist who will talk with my surgeon and see if we can’t do this hernia surgery in between my chemo sessions. Life’s a beach, right?!


    • Sometimes, life totally sucks. I had a massive hernia which was the result of a botched surgery. Then, they botched the hernia repair and I needed surgery to repair the original botched surgery and another surgery to repair the botched hernia surgery that resulted from the original surgery. I really feel your pain. After a while, it’s almost funny. If laughing didn’t hurt so much.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Lynn lost her first husband to cancer so I had to read your tale. The book sounds very interesting, even to me so I think I’ll get it for both of us to read. Keep us updated!


    • As far as I know, I’m okay. Which is about the best i could ever say, but I’m okay with it. It really is a good little book. I’d be interested in hearing from a man since it’s written from a feminine perspective. I know that it really rang true for me and I remember going through the same process both when I had cancer and when i was facing heart surgery, realizing that in the end, I had to accept the reality of treatment, regardless of outcome. Because I wasn’t ready to throw in the towel.

      My first husband survived cancer. It was the heart surgery that killed him.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. The way I understand it, cancer cells are good cells gone bad. That means that we are all potential cancer breeders of one kind or anther. Not a very comforting thought So, as you seem to be doing, entertaining a positive attitude is a contribution factor in surviving.


    • That’s true for some kinds of cancer. Thing is, cancer isn’t one thing. It’s a lot of things. It’s why “finding a cure for cancer” isn’t going to happen. Cancer is a group of diseases that behave similarly, but have different starting points and a wide variety of behaviors. It’s why no one can ever say with surety “I’m cancer free.” Maybe you are. Maybe not.


      • And maybe we can’t ever be really cancer free, even if one of it’s many forms hasn’t affected us yet. We’re almost in a “it’s not if, but when” type of Catch 22.


        • I think you are right. The same with many kinds of heart problems and arthritis. If you live long enough, you’ll get it. Somewhere. So much of this is genetic. I come from a cancer-riddled family and my odds were never good for escaping unscathed. They are doing a lot of research on these genetic links. They have found a few, but they know there are many more they haven’t found yet.


  5. That a great review Marilyn. Thanks for sharing.


  6. Fingers crossed it is scar tissue x


    • Well, it is or it isn’t, you know? If it isn’t, I’ll cross that bridge too. Right now, there doesn’t seem to be a reason for alarm. So much else is alarming, I’m not sure my system can handle anything more. Got the fingers AND the toes crossed 🙂


      • Not surprised…but yes, we deal with whatever comes. Or not. Which never really seems to be much of an option.


        • I think it becomes an option at a certain point. My mother got there. It took a long time, but finally, she said “No more treatment. I’ve had enough.” And she stuck to it and died. It wasn’t that she wanted to die, but she didn’t want to live with what would be left of her after more treatment. It was a hard choice for her and a terrible one for her family. I remember talking to her oncologist who said his own mother had made the same choice and we had to respect it. It was her right. Obviously that’s not where I am … but I can understand how I might get there. I think we don’t know what we will do until we are really forced to decide.


  7. I love your approach to it. Humour is the best way to go through challenges. Trust in God.


  8. Thanks for that Marilyn. I have been lucky, perhaps, my whole family has been lucky as the big “C” has never, or better said, almost never hit us. We have all had our problems. My grandmother who I never knew did die of bowel cancer, and my dad’s sister also with cancer, but otherwise on Mr. Swiss side if the family no signs. To be quit honest I do not know how I would cope. When MS was finally diagnosed I was already almost 70 and I was never one for great exercises so we all put my inability walking as a candidate for the Ministry of silly walks as not being fit. But I can cope with that one, too old to bother too much, and today the medical picture has been improved. But Cancer, I don’t know. I don’t even know if I would have the courage to read that book, perhaps. Anyhow wishing you all the best.

    Liked by 2 people

    • The book is light, not heavy and I suspect anyone who has had to face a life-changing medical decision would find at least part of it “relatable.” Honestly, I’m surprised I liked it. I have had a lot of surgery and a lot of parts of me are replacement parts.

      We do what we have to do. We don’t necessarily do it for ourselves. We do it because the people who care about us need us to hang around awhile longer, because giving up isn’t a real choice. Things change over time, too. You make one set of choices when you are younger, maybe a different set when you are older. The heart surgery was a harder choice for me than the cancer because my first husband died of that same surgery — or more to the point, complications of that surgery. And my mother died of breast cancer.

      We all die of something. Eventually. Ironically, all my surgeries went well. It’s the arthritis and asthma and the RA that make life so very difficult. They are what make walking hard and painful. The other stuff is “background” noise.

      I think we never know how we’ll react until we are there. But most of us decide to live unless there’s no hope.

      Liked by 2 people

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