The Importance of Being Honest--Living on the Sunny Side of Cancer

by Mary Lou Quinlan • Member { View Profile }

Today is the first Monday that I won’t have to climb onto the radiation table. I feel very different from the woman who started treatment just 7 weeks ago. Yesterday, I walked into yoga class and two women asked, “How are you?”, “Great! I just finished radiation.” Back at the start, no way would I have admitted it. And absolutely no way could I have imagined blogging about this experience on

I would never have been so open. But that was before…a lot of things happened to me.

Under wraps

At the time of the diagnosis, my first reaction was to tell no one. My few early forays of revealing my breast cancer freaked people into teary or horrified reactions, making me feel worse. 

So except for my husband, brother and closest colleagues, I just kept it to myself to keep it from being real. I figured it was my problem to fix.

Anyway, there was no waiting for me to get my act together, because I was deep into writing a new book, somewhat ironically entitled “What She’s Not Telling You” with my partners, Jen and Tracy. The day of our cover photo shoot, I was scheduled for a pre-surgery MRI. With my hair and makeup perfect, I posed for the photographer like nothing was wrong. Jen and Tracy offered to go with me, but my knee-jerk response, was “I can go alone. No big deal.” They insisted on coming.

The three of us headed uptown to the radiology center and walked in arm in arm brazenly licking frozen yogurts. It felt good to have company. I slid into the tube looking pretty damn gorgeous.  But the MRI showed the real picture, breast cancer, destined for lumpectomy. 

But even after the lumpectomy, I stayed isolated. Two days later, I accepted an award in Philadelphia with an upbeat speech in front of several hundred people. The mummy-wrap bandages under my dress didn’t give me away. But I was starting to feel more alone.

And there was one person I wanted with all my heart. 

I want my mom

I lost my mom three years ago. She was my best friend, my biggest champion. All I wanted was to bury my head in her lap and hear her tell me that everything would be okay.

Mom and I had a lot in common including relentless optimism fueled by the ability to compartmentalize. Though Mom was the kindest person who walked the earth, she was also one of the most resilient. Like her, I can bring down an emotional curtain, dust myself off and move past disappointments, almost as if they’d never happened. My Mom’s way of keeping a sunny face on things was to avoid talking about them to outsiders. Illnesses, problems, those were kept inside the family.

I tried to think of what Mom would say if she could look at me now. “We are tough. We don’t let things get us. We can do this.” She would want more of me than grimly plodding through, treading water between tests. And, frankly, I expected more of me, too.

I realized that I had allowed myself to slip into a funk. Facing radiation was a four alarm wakeup call. At that moment, I decided to put mind over matter and turn lemons into lemonade. I would trade worry for happiness, hell or high water.

But one thing I would do differently than Mom. Without her, I needed partners for this trip. I decided to take the advice of a good friend who said, “Only tell those who can help you.”

I started easy, with a neighbor who’s also a nurse, then two friends who had undergone radiation themselves. What I got in return wasn’t fear or avoidance, but understanding and information and kindness. The hardest one to tell was my Dad in Florida. I feared that a long distance call would be too scary. He needed to see my face to know I was okay and I needed to hug him to know the same. Finally hearing his full support for me opened the door to telling others.

Now it was time to formulate a plan for taming this cancer and turning it to something good. Like many midlifers, I’m addicted to reinvention. Could I emerge from these six weeks truly better than I went in? Could I reinvent this experience, maybe accelerate my healing?

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