Friday, September 5, 2008

Let me tell you about your cancer

It was a beautiful day. In fact, the day of the biopsy was one of those stunning days that make you wonder how on earth Labor Day could be the end of summer. It was Friday. My breast surgeon told me that "It was small" and "We won't know anything for a few days." I didn't know then that he already knew it was cancer. The frozen section had come back before I was even awake in the recovery room. I think he wanted to give me a gift, the gift of time to be me for just a few days longer. I will never forget the gift of those last, cancer free days .

A few days later, his nurse called me and told me I needed to come in. Now. I knew it couldn't be good news if he wasn't able to tell me over the phone. But the possibility still hadn't sunk in. I didn't know then what I was waiting to hear truly meant.

I sat down across from him. He turned in his chair to reach for a pamphlet behind him and said, "Let me tell you about your cancer." Cancer. What did he just say? I tried to write down what he was saying. I still have the paper. It made no sense. It was the less favorable kind. You mean there are good kinds of cancer? The survival rates are poorer than those with the "other" kind.

Five years didn't seem like it was in the cards for me. He gave me percentage points and I was not falling into the positive side of them. He said we would know more after the lumpectomy and lymph nodes were tested. But for now, I had cancer. He said to go home and not try to think of everything all at once because we still don't know everything yet. I got the feeling he was not waiting for good news to come out of further testing, but what did I know? I knew nothing about cancer except that people die from it and before they die they are made sick and tortured by scary drugs and they somehow cease being people.

I went to the city to see a specialist a few days later. It was the morning of September 11th, 2001. As I walked the streets in a self-absorbed, terrified daze, planes were flying overhead and ending the lives of thousands of people. Some of whom I knew. Suddenly, my cancer didn't seem so terrifying anymore. I was now afraid of the here and now. How would I get out of Manhattan? How many more planes were headed for the city? Does the NYPD have an air force?

And then there were the buildings. The billowing smoke was bad enough, but then they fell down. Someone said there could be 20,000 people trapped or killed inside. No one knew anything because the smoke and shattered steel was obscuring everything. The notion of "air pockets" was brought up. Surely there were air pockets providing survivors with enough oxygen until we could get to them. St. Vincent's hospital set up a huge outdoor triage to handle all the survivors.

There were no air pockets. There were no survivors. The doctors and nurses stood waiting with determined looks on their faces, but their eyes revealed the realization that they would not be helping anyone that day.

Then they started to come. As I was driving eastbound away from the burning city, the westbound lanes were at a complete standstill. Manhattan was in lock down. No one could enter. So the traffic backed up for miles and miles along the Long Island Expressway. But the emergency lane was clear. And they came. As far as the eye could see, truck after truck from every volunteer fire department on Long Island. There was a job to do and they were on their way. They weren't alone. Mixed in with the bright red of the fire trucks was another color- the bright yellow of the Catepillars and earth movers and dump trucks. Strangers from the small towns that occupy Long Island dropped everything and they were coming. Coming to help anyone who was in the pile. Nothing mattered except that we all stood together.

I changed that day. As I looked at the smoke that hovered over Ground Zero from a safe distance of a bridge heading home, I realized how lucky I was. I may have had cancer, but I had a chance to fight it. I didn't care how grim my prognosis was. I was going to fight it with everything I had.

I knew no one with cancer. I had no where to turn. But I had a computer. I was just getting accustomed to the internet then. I made a post on a breast cancer support board. Suddenly, like that beautiful line of volunteer fire fighters and construction workers, the responses came. I was told I wasn't alone. I was told what I needed to do. Strangers became my sisters. The fight became easier because I wasn't a lone soldier, I had an army.

From the darkness comes the best kind of hope. From misfortune comes the opportunity to become blessed. Helplessness can turn into strength and more. It can become a calling. It can make you into someone you weren't before.

That is what cancer did for me. In gratitude for the sisters who answered when I reached out into the dark, I did whatever I could to be like them. So I reached out to those newer than me. The seed was planted and I answered that call I could hear in my listening heart that it was my turn to do for others what was done for me. And in return? I have become a happier person. I have a great sense of peace inside me. I have friends, sisters, twins, all over the world now. They have touched my life and mean more to me than anything else has. I love my Band of Sisters and I have never felt alone or lonely since our hands were joined.

I didn't know back then what it meant when I heard the words, "Let me tell you about your cancer." But I do now. It means hope. It means love. It means strength. It means compassion. It means my family has just increased by at least two million.

The books and internet said, "Women with triple negative breast cancer have a poorer prognosis and will die sooner." So I wrote my own book. I started my own website. I fought a brand new cancer five years later for over a year and have been scanned to reveal No Evidence of Disease.

Let me tell you about your cancer... You can do this. You can make it through the horror of diagnosis. The surgeries are easier than you think. I have had all of them, I know. Seventy percent of all breast cancer is cured by surgery alone. Chemotherapy is not as bad as you are imagining it to be. I have had seven of them. I know. The number one side effect of chemo is: It Works. And then one day you will turn around and see it is all behind you and your life is waiting for you. You don't cease being a person. In fact, you become a person who contains multitudes. You may feel battered and beaten up, but you are courageous and strong. Stronger than you ever thought you could be.

As I walk around this life now and meet people who don't know about my cancer and they talk about the trials and tribulations of life and how afraid they are, I am quiet. I have a secret. They don't know what I know and what you will know when you are done with this. Like Clark Kent, we know that people may think we are like everyone else, but in reality, we can leap tall buildings in a single bound, decipher a pathology report as if it is our native tongue, and we can face just about anything.

If I remember that first meeting with my breast surgeon correctly, I am not supposed to be here right now. Well, he did give me negative percentage points. I didn't know that I would be blessed to fall into the positive few percentage points he also mentioned. I have been lucky, God has been good to me. I have lost many friends who I miss every day. But for some reason I am here. When you hear your "chances" and are given stats and percentage points, remember that you, too, can be on the positive side of those points too.

Twenty thousand people could have died in the World Trade Center, but because of the hard work of the heroes that came to their aid, they escaped. The windows and doors of the lobbies were shattered so everyone could get out. We lost three thousand, but tens of thousands made it out alive. Too many people die of cancer and it is infuriating and heart breaking. But millions also survive. And they are living wonderful lives- wiser, stronger, grateful lives.

Always look forward. Do what they ask of you. Never, ever give up hope. And above all, No Surrender.


Jenster said...

What an incredible story of hope. Would it be okay if I linked this post on my blog and on the Mothers with Cancer website?

No Surrender said...

Of course! Thanks so much, Jen!

Jenster said...

Awesome! Thanks!!

Anonymous said...

I read your beautiful story just when I needed it the most. Thank you, Gina. You are a true hero . . . and, actually, a guardian angel in my eyes, as well. Bless You.

Sarah S. said...

Good post! Coming over from Mothers With Cancer. I am also a triple negative breast cancer survivor. I have not met many people who are triple negative. I am off to read the rest of your blog.