I first got the bad news about the breast cancer at the end of September, but because I didn’t or couldn’t process the information, I didn’t realize that I actually had breast cancer until a week or two later. Mostly because I was walking around in a fog of disbelief and denial, like how you feel when a guy rear ends your car because he didn’t notice the red light. It’s just too ridiculous to believe.
Really, that’s how I felt. So, in a way, I ended up having my own Breast Cancer Awareness Month. It took a while, but now, I’m totally aware.
To be honest, my first reaction, once I’d accepted that the diagnosis was real and not just a really realistic bad dream, was shame. I felt embarrassed to have succumbed to this cliché, what with the ubiquitous and annoying pink ribbons and the road races and the fundraisers and the general brouhaha. I’d thought I’d be immune, for lots of reasons, most of them dumb.
I’ve been exercising almost every day for 35 years; I don’t drink much or do drugs of any kind, and I’m a healthy eater. I thought that taking care of myself would prevent breast cancer. (Wrong.) Also, I’m flat chested, so I thought the upside to having no boobs was no boob cancer. (Wrong again.) Plus, I’d been a chemo buddy for a close friend with breast cancer, thus innoculating me from getting it myself. (Wrong yet again.) And since I know a few women with breast cancer, I thought I was protected, statistically speaking: due to the one in seven rule. (Ditto.) Also, my mother and sister never had it. (Guess.) Plus, the timing was all wrong. I’d just been on the Today show, to promote my new book, and I was deep into trying to write an Op Ed piece for the New York Times that they’d be willing to publish, based on the superior wife syndrome, the central idea of my book, thus to make me an instant expert on the topic. (Didn’t happen; also didn’t prevent b.c.)
There is, of course, no good time to be told you have breast cancer, but I’ve always been good at self-deception, so the logic of this obvious fact escaped me.
Also, I don’t like telling people I have breast cancer, though I can’t quite figure out why, other than the embarrassment. Though I am often tempted to play the b.c. card: as in, when somebody asks “How are you doin’?”, expecting to hear “Fine, how about you?”, I want to say, “Other than the breast cancer, fine, how about you?” When I do tell people, though, I really resent it when they say, “Oh, you’ll be fine.”
Really? How do you know? Are you an oncologist, perhaps, or a gifted seer, able to read the future? Please don’t belittle my anxiety by telling me it’s nothing. Also, after I tell you, don’t go blabbing to everybody else we know about my cancer. It’s my story to tell, not yours. And don’t respond with stories about other women you know who had breast cancer but are now, sadly, dead. This does not lift my spirits.
Do hug me, tell me you’re sorry, ask if there’s anything you can do. And mean it. Be like the friends who dropped off dinner, the day of my lumpectomy, without even asking, because they knew I’d be grateful for it. Or the other friend who had take-out delivered to us from a nearby restaurant, also without asking. Don’t ask if you can bring dinner, because the polite answer is, of course, “No, don’t bother, we’ll be fine,” which is a big fat lie. We won’t be fine, since I’m the only one in my current family of four who cooks.
I’m still at the beginning of my cancer journey, and I’m aware that the predictability of yet another such breasty story is boring, though it’s riveting to me. Anyway, if you see me on the street, hug me, and ask what night I want you to cook me dinner. I’ll let you know.