Breast Cancer Connections recently held an essay contest asking people to write about their personal experience with breast cancer. The following three essays: Rejuvenation, In the Pink, and Seeking Solace in the Hills have been selected as finalists.
The winner is In the Pink by Randy Hale and will be published in BCC’s March 2013 Newsletter.
Voting ended on Jan 26, 2013.
In the Pink
By Randy Hale
She’d been feeling good lately. You might even say she was in the pink. After all it was October – pink t-shirts, pink ribbons, pink gloves on the Seahawks, pink, pink, pink. Actually some of her favorite things were pink: sunsets over the Olympics, Cosmopolitans, salmon, the pretty blush that made her skin glow, and that impossibly cute pink sweatshirt in her closet. None of which had anything to do with breast cancer.
She’d never much cared for October except for the changing leaves and Indian summers. She especially disliked Halloween – where was the fun in being scared? And then, on October 31, 2011, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Boo!
A year later, once again surrounded by pink, she receives an email angrily venting about how buying and wearing pink things is an empty token, a huge money making, promotional push that does nothing of substance for breast cancer. The author is full of rage, and to a degree she gets it.
She knows that nothing huge is accomplished by the small, enameled pink ribbon pin on her jean jacket. She wears it because it was made for her by a jewelry designer with breast cancer — one of her clients in NY. The woman spoke poignantly about her disappointment in a lumpectomy that, while conserving her breast, left it deformed and virtually unfixable due to radiation treatments — information that wasn’t volunteered beforehand. Cancer free, she’d been left to fend for herself emotionally.
She also wears it for the lovely upper eastside volunteer who gave hope to women in post surgery breast cancer groups. Well into her 50’s, she was stunningly beautiful and happily married. But under her Chanel suit she sported a radical mastectomy she’d had since she was 28, after which her then husband had left her.
She wears it for Linda, so delighted with her reconstruction after double mastectomies, that she’d open her blouse and display her new breasts to anyone who so much as mentioned it. And for the handsome, athletic young man who had a mastectomy with reconstruction so he’d look more normal with his shirt off in the gym.
And she wears it for Kim, one of her best friends, whose breast cancer was left to fester for 6 months by a doctor who didn’t have a keen enough level of suspicion, thinking she was too young, too athletic, too healthy for that lump to be cancer. After 4 years of treatment, she died at 39, leaving her husband and two small children.
She wears it because breast cancer isn’t just a case of bodacious tatas gone bad. It’s personal — a vicious assault on men and women who are known and loved – a life threatening, body changing, out of control attack. The solidarity displayed in a show of pink can render that experience less frightening, more mainstream, rather than shameful and damaging. It may even create an opening to start the conversation about having a life altering diagnosis.
She also wears it because pink can give a voice to those without cancer too. A way to say they care no matter how awkward or scared they are. A way to say they, too, have feelings about it – fear, confusion, grief over losing a friend, or joy and relief when a loved one makes it through alive and well.
But this year she’s feeling a bit protective of herself and her breast cancer experience. She doesn’t want to be the center of attention that way anymore. She’d like to pass. Breast cancer will always be a part of her, but only a part. It doesn’t define her this October the way it did last year.
A lot of people already know. Others may find out over a late night glass of wine, when everyone is telling tales and sharing truths about themselves. Some may never hear.
For now she just wants to get on with her life. She thinks about that cute pink sweatshirt – maybe she’ll wear it tomorrow. Or maybe she’ll wait until November. She’ll see.
By Sally Nettleton
I’ve made quite a dent on my side of the sofa and it’s not because I’ve been playing too many video games.
My dent comes from hours of looking out of the picture window at my garden, watching the flowers grow and the seasons change. Not a pastime I would normally spend so much time on, but that dent in the sofa became my haven, through the formidable time on chemo.
There were days when my body was paralyzed and unable to move; with the comfort of a soft warm blanket covering me and protecting me, life was bearable. Still the plants flourished outside with the sun and water on their backs. There was no sun on my back, as my dent continued to grow deeper.
Life goes on around me but my life has stood still. Will this feeling of helplessness ever go away? I need sympathy; nobody knows how I really feel so how can they sympathize?
My veins are pulsating, the poison inside flows slowly like mercury in a thermometer creeping up the tube. Still that dent gives me a sense of security and starts engulfing me.
Hair is coming out in chunks and lines my dent like a nest. That part of me which categorizes me as a woman has gone. I can’t bear to look at myself; I look like an alien, that’s if aliens look like that. With a bald head, a port to the right of my chest and a large scar on my left breast, I have aptly named it the triangle of hate.
The days pass slowly and nighttime even slower. I’m so tired but I can’t get any sleep. I close my eyes, how I wish I could sleep. All that happens is my mind races and I am provided with a full length movie beneath my eyelids, as images race before me. My eyes spring open, still dark, those darn drugs and that dent is feeling more like a permanent home. Slowly the sun comes up to welcome another day but I don’t welcome another day of feeling like my world is caving in on me. As the light strains through the side of the blinds, I do start to feel better. These alien feelings are beginning to pass and I can dig myself out of my dent that has become more of a hole by now.
Finally after 16 weeks of emotionally charged treatment, drugs and doctors visits, it has come to an end. A glance in the mirror and a normal person starts to re-emerge. The color in my cheeks has returned and I rejoice in a much healthier complexion. Hair begins to show and I never thought I would celebrate the day when I shaved my armpits once again. Potatoes and bread became my staple, but as my appetite returns to normal no more bland tasting food.
What will happen next? Chemo, as cruel as it is, has gone but so has my safety net. Nothing will happen to me while treatment is in progress but now it has come to an end, I enter the unknown. An unknown world of what’s in store for the future years. As I have discovered my brain is a weird phenomenon, as time passes the chemo becomes a distant memory. It reminds me of childbirth, you quickly forget the pain but unlike childbirth where you go back for more, this is an experience not be repeated. As I return to a normal life, thoughts of the cancer start to drift to the back of my brain but it never strays too far. There are times when my emotions still flood my brain, I just want the thoughts and cancer to dry up and remain in a drought forever. I so wish the doctor could give me a graduating certificate; check – surgery, check – chemo, check – radiation plus reassurance that I will stay strong, but no such reward just the reward to wait and see what life has in store for me.
Time is a healer I’m told, in which I am beginning to believe. Listening to survivors stories, helps to know that there is light at the end of my journey. Being here for my family, appreciating every minute, every hour and every day that life has to offer, is a gift that is precious and not to be sniffed at. It’s unfortunate that I have had to encounter this disaster to appreciate what really matters.
That dent in the sofa has recovered and so has my body for now. I look out the window and fall is in the air and the leaves are starting to drop. The cancer has also fallen away from my body. No more sofas for me… there is a life out there waiting to be grasped firmly and lived to the fullest. Most importantly living, alongside all the precious people that have supported me through my dark times and guided me with their candles.
I don’t know if there are more tough times ahead of me but I must stay focused on my life’s goals. I have so much I need to accomplish and share in an unknown amount of time. It’s critical for me not to waste time on irrelevant activities or thoughts. I must use my time wisely and try not to forget my purpose here.
I must make my life count in a way that pleases me and no one else.
Seeking Solace in the Hills
By Carol Taggart
He took my hand in his. Together we walked along the path, the same winding path we had walked so many times before, under grand oaks and eucalyptus trees with peeling bark, among squirrels darting to and fro, and woodpeckers busily drilling holes in dead tree stumps, stashing their winter’s supply of precious acorns. It was all so familiar, but today was different for my husband and me.
We couldn’t look at each other or speak a word for a long distance. Then we paused. Tears welled up in both our eyes, streaming down our cheeks. He pulled me closely to his body, hugging me as if never wanting to let go.
“I don’t want to lose you,” he emotionally cried.
Not fully comprehending the terrible new circumstances that had recently encompassed my world, in denial I found relief to my insurmountable fears. It made me feel better.
“What do you mean? Lose me. You’re not going to lose me. I feel fine. Look, I am feeling so fine I’m climbing the hills, all the way to The Dish”, referring to a popular climb to the Stanford Satellite Dish sitting on a high hill overlooking the university and environs. “Further,” I said, “I’ve been referred to a special oncologist who can save me. You’re not going to lose me.”
Tears streamed down my cheeks. I knew the denials belied my true, most inner feeling. I knew the prognosis was not good. I had Cancer! Breast Cancer! Triple-Negative Breast Cancer! Stage III Cancer! Lymph nodes involved! These were the truths that faced me. I wondered if there was more. Had the cancer travelled from my lymph nodes into my brain? my bones? I tried to rescue these unspeakable thoughts with more denial. “I feel fine,” I wept.
A month earlier, following a diagnostic biopsy, my personal physician called. “Are you someplace where you can sit down?” she tactfully asked. Then I knew. Sinking slowly into a chair, I heard her softly say, “It’s Cancer.” The words shot through my whole being like a knife, hardly believing, not wanting to believe.
Then, within days, I received more bad news. “It’s gone from bad to worse,” I told my husband. “The lymph nodes are involved, all the way up to my neck. From there, the cancer can spread to anywhere in my body – bones, brain, liver –anywhere.”
To add to my troubled mind, I was later to learn that Triple Negative Breast Cancer is a particularly vicious form of cancer, difficult to treat, with no known cure.
This was the troubled world in which I found myself.
On this particular day we had decided to walk up to the rolling hills behind Stanford University, with its seemingly never-ending winding hiking trails and far-reaching vistas. Somehow I felt by going out into nature, I could forget my dreadful dilemma. I would find solace in the hills.
Wiping tears from both our faces, we trudged on. “You go ahead,” I told my husband. As he ran up the hill, I found myself alone with my most inner thoughts.
Why cancer? Why me? Is this all a bad dream? Will the doctors save me? Will I live? Will I die? Does it hurt to die? How many more sunsets will I see? Will I be able to see cows grazing in the grass or birds singing their melodic songs one more time in these beautiful hills?
As I looked beyond the hills, I saw the sun was setting. Thinking I may never again see another sunset, this sunset became more dramatic than ever with its hues of oranges and reds, reflected on drifting pink clouds in the distance and above me. With the sun dipping further behind the distant hills and the first minutes of darkness approaching, I wanted to cry out, “Don’t go, Sunset! Stay a little longer! Don’t you understand? I may never see you again!”
Massive oaks with their far-reaching branches were silhouetted like great massive sculptures against the darkening sky. A lone bird flew to its tree, settling in for the night.
Contemplating being there for the last time, tears once again welled up in my eyes, as I turned away from other hikers, suffering in moments of private silence.
That was three years ago now. Months of painful chemotherapy, a mastectomy with lymph node removal, and a month of daily radiation was behind me.
Now I climb those same hills with extra energy in my step. I deeply breathe in the air, so happy to be alive. Cows roam the hills, lazily eating grass while squirrels dart in and out of their earthly holes. Each blade of grass moves silently in the breeze while white, billowy clouds drift above me. Birds provide melodic songs to my ears and colorful beauty to my eyes. The cows, squirrels, grass, birds, and clouds represent life and I am a part of it!
I’m told that I’m cancer-free, that I have won the odds against me. The words are hard to believe. Is it possible? Do I dare to believe, only to sink later into depths of despair finding out the cancer has returned? When will I hear the cancer has returned? Tomorrow? A month from now? A year from now? Never? How do I know?
Returning to the same paths we have so often walked before, he holds my hand in his. We both smile, greeting other walkers. There are no more tears. I am alive and cancer-free – at least for now.
Voting ended Jan 26, 2013.