The Years of Magical Thinking

I’d survived cancer, but I couldn’t stop the fairy-tale bargaining.

by Julia Glass
Photograph: Photo: Elinor Carucci

When that word emerges from your doctor’s mouth, whether it’s cancer or malignant or a mournful sorry, the first thing it does is mess with your plans. After my “just to be safe” biopsy, I was so sure the news would be good that as I waited with my boyfriend, those plans were all I could talk about. I was 36, and we’d been together awhile; a baby made all the sense in the world. Ten minutes later, that world had spun out of its orbit.

To my surprise, I did not rage or whine about injustice. I sank into a stunned humility. I thought not, Why me? but, Why not me? My sole ambition would be survival; it felt presumptuous to ask for more from life than, well, life. Yet perhaps there was a way to bargain with this disease, to strike a deal for just one thing: that baby.

Tumors, like criminals, vary widely in their pathology. Mine was a small but nasty, intractable fellow—what’s known today as TNBC, or triple-­negative breast cancer. My surgeon warned me that while he’d caught it early, I should be vigilant for two to three years, the period during which it was most likely to recur. “If you want to get pregnant,” he said, “wait.” I could do that, I reasoned, and more.

Over the next two years, three close friends had babies. I worked—and worked out. I gave up cheese and meat; saw my doctors; tried not to panic at every headache, cough or twinge of pain. The cancer did not return. And then, just like that, I was pregnant. An ecstatic nine months later, I had my son Alec. Dennis was a great father. What more could I want?

I remained healthy. I wrote my first novel. Meanwhile, my friends had second or third babies. I never lost sight of my good fortune, but I began to wish for more: a sibling for Alec. Was that so much to ask? My breast surgeon gave me his blessing. Yet I couldn’t shake the shadow presence of the cancer in my life, lying in wait like a wizard in the forest, ready to exact a price should I become too greedy. And so I pleaded, privately, One more child, that’s all.

It wasn’t easy—emotionally or ­physically—but when Alec was nearly five, I had Oliver, his brother. Four months later, a tiny bump in my right armpit turned out to be a recurrence of the cancer from nine years before.
Never have I cried so hard. How foolish I’d been to think I could stretch my luck. Like the fisherman’s wife in that terrifying fairy tale, I had made one wish too many; everything would be taken away. Once again, survival was the only thing to wish for—this time, for the sake of my children first of all.

Six months of chemotherapy followed, a price in itself. Just let me raise these two boys till they’re young men, I beseeched; 16, 17 years. A tall order, perhaps, but I would surrender all fantasies of seeing them choose careers, have children of their own. A friend with older children mentioned one day that he couldn’t wait to be a grandfather; didn’t I feel the same way? I said, “Well, I doubt I’ll live that long.” When he laughed, I didn’t tell him I wasn’t joking.

Shortly after the chemo ended, my first book was published. I remember vividly what it felt like to experience such joy and success in the wake of so much grief—and I remember the vaguely ominous sense that there would be a price for this. Since then, with the publication of each new book, with the savoring of so many simple familial delights, I cannot help glancing over my shoulder, peering into the shadows of the forest.

I am now 53. Alec and Oliver are 13 and eight; Dennis is still their wonderful dad. Last summer my oncol­ogist asked me to remind him how many years it had been since my recurrence. “Eight,” I said. “You will never see that cancer again,” he said. I must have looked skeptical, because he added, “I’m telling you you’re cured.” That word, coming from the mouth of my doctor, filled me with a sense of elation. And yet . . .

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