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 “disease.” It is many diseases characterized by a common thread, that they are a group of diseases involving abnormal cell growth with the potential to invade or spread to other parts of the body. But cancers are different for each organ they invade … which is why I doubt there will never be “a cure” for cancer. There may be a cure for this or that cancer, but a cure for all cancers? For every part of the body? Not likely.
Moreover, there is no test to tell you if your body is free of cancer cells.
This is, of course, true of everyone from birth till death, but when you’ve 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 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.
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?
Beth Israel Hospital in Boston.
I went with smallish and no nipples (they require two extra surgeries and they are entirely for appearance), and silicon, which feels more “real” than saline. I suppose it’s all for appearance, really. It is the appearance of womanhood which matters when the original parts have been replaced. And yet, appearance matters more than we might think and in ways we never imagined.
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?” Could 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 were the best. Anywhere. Literally described by my local oncologist as “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. This is something you want to get right the first time.
My oncologist thinks, as I do, that it’s nothing to get excited about, but we’ll watch it. I had been on an annual checkup, but now I’m back on a 3-month schedule. It may not be a big deal, but you don’t fool around with cancer. And you never, ever take for granted that you are fine, no matter what anyone tells you — including your doctors.
As all this was going on, I have been reading. Most of the books have been lackluster, but this one: Life and Other Near-Death Experiences: A Novel by Camille Pagan, grabbed me from the first page and kept me engaged to the end. I wished it wouldn’t end which is unusual for me to say, especially because it’s a book is about a young woman who discovers she has a rare, aggressive form of cancer while simultaneously discovering her marriage has come unglued. Literally, both things hitting her on the same day within a couple of hours.
What makes this book different from other books that deal with life and death, is it never takes the easy way out. There are no cheap, easy fixes for life’s ugly problems. It confronts real decisions people have to make and does so with humor, wit, and realism.
The main character of the story freaks out when her life falls apart. She doesn’t take it calmly. She completely loses it. She needs time to think — plus a huge amount of support from family and friends to face her new reality. It was the most realistic story about dealing with cancer I’ve read and it wasn’t depressing.
Not a light-hearted 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, especially when you know there’s no surety you’ll beat it.
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 take life for granted, but we do. Until we come upon our dark angel — and he’s holding our number.
What made this one special was its lack of sentimentality. No mawkishness. Not a cliché in sight … you I cannot tell you how grateful I was for that. I’ve had cancer. I have (had) (still have) (will have) heart disease. If there is a cliché about disease I haven’t heard, I’d be surprised.
This is a good book. I hope it will get some attention. It got lumped into the category of “humor” where it doesn’t exactly fit. I’m not sure where it would fit, so maybe humor is as good as any other placement. Occasionally, it made me laugh or at least chuckle in recognition.
Regardless, any book that can make you laugh in the face of death is worth a read.