I’ve been feeling very silly tonight, giggling at things that wouldn’t normally strike me as funny and doing things like belching the ABC’s to make my kids laugh (to the husband’s consternation). I like how it feels, but belching the ABC’s for laughs isn’t normal behavior for a 41 year old woman. Mainly I attribute my unusually good spirits to an unusually good practice today and the fact that Sir got my hands to clasp again today in Supta K, which has led me to conclude that I WILL really and truly get past Supta K someday, for real. Joy! But for a split second, it occurred to me that perhaps something is wrong with me – with my brain. Inappropriate affect can be a symptom of that sort of thing, right?
Then I realized I was just reacting to the power of suggestion – an essay in the Modern Love column in the Style Section of the New York Times today about about a woman whose marriage was cut short by her husband’s gliobastoma. Disturbing essay. Later, at Adam’s indoor baseball practice, I ran into a woman with whom I went to Tufts, and we ended up rattling off a (unfortunately rather long) list of people with whom we had attended Tufts who had later died of cancer. Three lymphomas, one colon cancer and one liver cancer. All but one had moved in the same crowd. Disturbing indeed.
And that’s how the conversation came around to the fact that I had had my own cancer diagnosis four and a half years ago.
Of course, the inevitable question: “Are you okay now?”
The carefully sculpted rote answer: “Yes. I feel fine.”
The probing response: “But you’re healthy now, right?”
Followed by the slightly more defensive, slightly less vague, “Yes, I am fine now. Thank God.”
Then an interesting question came my way, one which I realized later on that I have never heard before today: “So, when you get to the five year point, you’re cured, right?”
How to answer such a question? The reality: Of COURSE not. How could one be considered “cured” just for having passed a certain number of days since the initial diagnosis? I suppose that I have to concede that every day that goes by in good health racks up evidence in favor of the disease not recurring. But the truth is that breast cancer can recur any time. In fact, breast cancer recurrance peaks in the first two years after diagnosis and then peaks AGAIN at twenty years post diagnosis. Crazy shit.
I try to avoid being didactic, and I dislike being “contrary” with people outside of my immediate family. But it is hard to answer a question like the one posed to me today, without doing so, without simultaneously lying and perpetuating a misconception. And so, I ended up telling her that yeah, getting to five years without the disease returning is a really good sign, although they never really use the word “cure” with breast cancer since it has been known to come back in women long after five years has passed.
The woman looked stricken. I know that look. I’ve seen that look many times, particularly in the first few months after I was diagnosed. It’s the look that has the power to reduce my stoic demeanor into a puddle of stammering and backpedaling: “Actually,” I said brightly, “with the stuff that they gave me, you know, treatment I got, they say that getting past the first two years is the golden ticket. I mean, it’s powerful stuff they have now. Have you heard of Herceptin? It’s great great stuff. If it doesn’t work, they can tell sooner now. And everything seems fine, knock wood, knock wood, kinehura, heh, heh…”
Well, she seemed convinced, which meant that I felt convinced too.
Or vice versa. I couldn’t be sure which came first – my own sense of vulnerability? Or her concern?
It made me wonder though, whether telling people my “story” is actually impolite in some way. I mean, am I putting something on them that they didn’t really need to hear? What is this need to confess? Just because we were talking about other people we knew who had had cancer, did I have an obligation to disclose my own?
Well, I guess I don’t have to worry about giggling any more tonight. Nothing like mentioning cancer 25 times in 250 words to bring the level of mirth down to zilch. I think I’ll go pour myself a Pernod now and read me some Dickens.