Breast cancer, the Affordable Care Act, my friend and me (and why you should care)

In one of life’s little ironies, this National Day of Action to preserve Americans’ access to health care coincides with the ninth anniversary of my breast cancer diagnosis.

January 15, 2008 was a Tuesday, and I was sitting in my office when my secretary put through the call from my doctor. I can’t remember what I was doing at the time, what I did afterwards, or much else, really. Quite a bit has faded over the past almost-a-decade, even in the two years since I wrote this 2015 post.

The important thing was that I was sitting in my office. Which is to say: I had a job, and it was the kind of job that comes with an office, someone to take calls for you, and health insurance.

So as I went through treatment – which involved too many scans and biopsies to remember, surgery, a fairly grueling course of chemotherapy and eight years of anti-hormonal drugs – I was cocooned in a security blanket of comprehensive coverage. Continue reading

Race report – Scotland Run 10K (2016 edition)

post-Scotland Run

Don’t look for me in this photo – I’m not there (for reasons that will be explained). Photo credit: Christine Goh

Half the fun of New York Road Runners races is getting there, so it’s only right that this (tardy) report should begin with an early-morning train story.

Weekend construction-related service changes are the bane of racers, but for once, they broke in my favor. Not only did an F train come right away – it was skipping 14th and 23rd streets, turning its usual pokey course through Manhattan into something approaching express service.

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I used to be a morning person.

I settled into a mostly-empty car and closed my eyes. At Jay Street, a mother, father and adult daughter, all laden with suitcases, boarded. They headed toward the empty bench I was on, then stopped. Continue reading

“No Bra Day” – huh?

I just learned that October 13 is “No Bra Day.” Back in 2008, when I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I might have missed this – Facebook was for kids then, not middle-aged women, and Twitter . . . what the hell was this Twitter thing?

But today, not only is “No Bra Day” a “trending topic” – I actually kind of know what a “trending topic” is. And so, judging by the angry reactions I’m seeing, do many of my breast cancer sisters.

The weird thing about “No Bra Day” is that no one seems to actually be behind it. Continue reading

Chasing Boston (part 1: why)

Screenshot (18)Once upon a time, I didn’t care about running the Boston Marathon.

I had my reasons. There was my New York chauvinism (even back then, when I lived in Detroit): the New York City Marathon is just a better race, I declared, before I’d run either one. There was my desire to seem quirky and iconoclastic, gleefully puncturing the assumption that I had run, or at least aspired to run, Boston (“Boston? Nah, for some reason I’ve never been interested. What I really want to run is the Around the Bay 30K in Hamilton, Ontario. Did you know that race is actually older than Boston?”). There was my aversion to training hard through the Michigan winter. And, I’m ashamed to admit, there was snobbery. Weren’t those vaunted Boston qualifying standards a little, well, soft?

In my not-so-youthful arrogance, with two Boston-qualifying races to my name, I figured that if I ever changed my mind, I could always shuffle my way to another BQ. The standards just get easier with age, after all, and I had plenty of time.

Then came my cancer year. Continue reading

On non-reconstruction

swimsuit cropExactly seven years ago today, I had a unilateral mastectomy (they threw the lymph node dissection in as a bonus). I wasn’t supposed to have cancer. My cancer wasn’t supposed to be in a lymph node. And I certainly wasn’t supposed to have a mastectomy.

Things don’t always happen the way they’re supposed to.

Roughly a week before my scheduled lumpectomy, some suspicious MRI results meant my surgery had to be canceled to accommodate follow-up tests. (Can I mention here that you haven’t lived until you’ve had an MRI-guided breast biopsy? I was immobilized on a table, my breasts dangling through a hatch so that technicians with drills could access them from below. It was like being the car at Jiffy Lube.)  When it was all over, the surgical plan had changed to mastectomy.

I got the word about the new biopsy results and met with my surgeon on Wednesday, March 5.  Surgery was scheduled for Thursday, March 13. That didn’t leave much time to think about options. I was pretty sure I didn’t want reconstruction, and a hastily-scheduled consultation with a plastic surgeon two days before my surgery didn’t change that.  If anything, it solidified my negative feelings – a mixture of queasiness, fear, and horror. Continue reading

Cancer nasties

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One of the first things I did after I was diagnosed with breast cancer was to join an on-line support group. I was diagnosed on January 15, 2008; my membership in the “community” at a certain major breast cancer website (which shall remain nameless here) dates from January 17.

I should say, first off and up front, that I found amazing support there during the period between my diagnosis and surgery, and all through my four months of chemo. I mean, really amazing. As in, collecting-my-mail-and-finding-a-surprise-package-of-post-surgical-camisoles-and-nightshirts amazing. I think I cried that day.

Up to then, my experience with on-line communities consisted mostly of a running site, letsrun.com, on which horny cross-country guys told one another how much they sucked, wily masters smacked them down, and spelling-and-grammar trolls prepared to pounce. It could be a very mean place. It was also, often, very funny. (Just thinking about certain threads – “Fanny pack in a 5K,” “Deer Kara Goucher” – still makes me giggle.)

So as much as I valued the kindness and support of this new community – and I honestly don’t know how I would have made it through treatment without it – I also chafed a bit at the constant, unremitting, niceness. Was I a horrible person for wanting just a little acidity to cut through all that sweetness?  A newly-diagnosed woman would write something hysterical, making no sense whatsoever (I remember one post in particular, full of “omg’s” and misspellings and referring to chemo, I kid you not, as “tata juice”), and all I could think was, “imagine what the guys at letsrun would do with that.” Surely, someone here would offer some tough love: “Sweetheart, you need to get a grip and grow up. And for fuck’s sake, don’t call it tata juice.” But no. The warm, comforting responses would pour in, welcoming her to “the sisterhood no one wants to be a part of” and telling her that she had come to the right place. Not one word about the tata juice.

And I would feel thoroughly ashamed of myself. Still, I couldn’t shake the sense that this, too, was a form of loss. Cancer had already taken my left breast, my axillary lymph nodes, my ovarian function and my sense of invulnerability. Did I also have to give up sarcasm and bitchiness? Was I fated to a lifetime of signing notes “xoxoxo” and “gentle hugs”? (Which I still do, by the way, so I guess that’s a “yes.”)

As they say: be careful what you wish for. Continue reading

Cancerversaries

My cancer album

When you’re diagnosed with cancer, you’re booted into a new country with its own language and customs.*  An example: marking “cancerversaries.” Spellcheck may not recognize the term (it’s underlined in squiggly red on my screen as I type this), but if you are, or have been, a cancer patient, you probably do.

A “cancerversary” is, of course, the anniversary of your cancer. Today is mine.**

I was diagnosed with breast cancer seven years ago, on January 15, 2008. What that means, specifically, is that I took a call from my doctor while at work. (Was it in the morning? The afternoon? I honestly don’t remember. You start out thinking these things will be seared into your memory, but it turns out they’re not.)  Despite the fact that I had recently been called back to investigate some sketchy mammogram findings, had something show up on the follow-up ultrasound (“almost certainly a cyst”), had that something aspirated (“yep, a cyst”) and the brownish fluid it contained sent to the lab for analysis (“standard procedure”) – and despite the fact that it’s rarely good news when your doctor calls you out of the blue – I was more puzzled than worried. Why on earth was Dr. S calling?

He was obviously uncomfortable, and his discomfort made him stammer, so it took a while for me to figure out what he was trying to say. I heard a “sorry” and an “unfortunately” and “cells” and then, finally, the word that got my attention: “malignancy.”

As I held the word “malignancy” up to the light, turning it around so I could inspect it from all angles, more words tumbled out. “Biopsy.” “Appointment.” “Surgeon.” “Lumpectomy.” “Radiation.” “Mastectomy.”

At the end of the call, ever polite, I thanked him.

I won’t go into the details of my diagnosis and treatment in this post, other than to say that Dr. S’s call put me on a long and winding road of biopsies, follow-up images, follow-up biopsies to the follow-up images, surgery and chemo. Screw all that. On my cancerversary, I’m going to skip right past the first eight months of 2008 and take stock, instead, of the months and years since then.

Here goes:

No evidence of disease. I am, by all the evidence, cancer-free. That’s not the same as being cured. With breast cancer, there’s no magic number of years after which you can breathe a sigh of relief and say, “There! It’s over and done.” I know that, and yet, with each cancerversary, it gets easier to approach life as though I am, in fact, cured. Call it denial, call it whatever, but it works for me. And speaking of life . . .

Life is generally good. I was the single mother of a teenager when I was diagnosed, and I had one non-negotiable demand of fate: to live long enough to see my daughter, then a freshman, graduate from high school. Anything short of that was unacceptable, anything beyond that would be a gift. And now? My high school freshman is a college senior, I’m married to a wonderful guy (two years and counting), I made the big move from Detroit to Brooklyn, and I’ve even returned to running as a modestly competitive age-grouper. Under the terms of the original deal, those are all “gifts” – but, you know, I’m looking to renegotiate. Because . . .

Having to be grateful all the time kind of sucks. Cultivating gratitude is a good and virtuous thing and I’m all for it. But to feel you must be grateful (especially for things other people are allowed to take for granted), or that it’s churlish to complain about creaky joints and numb armpits and slow 10K times and other stuff I won’t go into here (you’re alive, aren’t you?) . . . well, it’s oppressive. And complicated by a dollop of survivors’ guilt. Especially since . . .

My friends keep dying. Part of being diagnosed with cancer, at least in a world of online social networks and support groups, is that you meet many, many other people with cancer. Some of those people become good friends, and some heartbreaking number of those friends die. The shadow over every cancerversary is the knowledge that not everyone makes their next one. Laura, Randie, Dana, Elizabeth, Allison, Pamela, C: each year, the list of women I miss grows longer. Sometimes I miss them acutely and sometimes the missing is a kind of background thrum, but it doesn’t go away.

Those are my cancerversary thoughts. Now I’m going out for a run.

. . .

I always love getting comments on this blog, but with this post, I’m particularly interesting in hearing from other cancer patients. I hope you’ll feel free to share your own cancerversary stories – how (if at all) do you mark them, what memories do they stir up, and how has your approach to significant dates changed over time?

Or whatever the hell else you’d like to say.


*This is not exactly an original observation: Barbara Ehrenreich has described “Cancerland” with wit and anger, while Susan Sontag earlier wrote about the “kingdom of the sick.” What’s most striking, at least to me, are the many cancer patients who’ve never heard of either woman, but who grasp at the same images – of borders crossed, dislocation, foreign-ness – when they describe their own experiences.

**I consider my date of diagnosis to be my cancerversary, but the term could also apply to the date of initial surgery, the date of subsequent surgeries, first chemo, last chemo, etc. The rule is: your cancer, your choice. That rule, applied more broadly, is cancer etiquette 101.