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Cancer is a Bitch: An Interview with Author Gail Konop Baker

Gail Konop Baker: "Receiving a cancer diagnosis is like being forced to walk through fire. It isn't something you choose. It isn't something you can conjure in your mind."
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"I'm part of a club I didn't mean to join," writes Gail Konop Baker, author of Cancer is a Bitch: Or, I'd Rather Be Having a Midlife Crisis (Da Capo, 2008).

Baker, a mother of three and wife of a doctor, was a self-professed health nut. She ran marathons, practiced yoga, ate organic foods, and was a lifelong subscriber to Prevention magazine. Like many of us, she believed that she could keep breast cancer at bay: It was something that happened to other people's friends, relatives, neighbors and co-workers.

Then, at the age of 45, after two prior biopsies that turned out to be false alarms, Baker was diagnosed with ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS), the most common form of noninvasive breast cancer.

This intelligent, funny, and extremely gutsy not only book chronicles Baker's breast cancer journey and successful treatment, but also speaks to marriage, motherhood, careers and the significance of friendships in women's lives. Her voice is unusually compelling because it is so intimate and honest, like a best friend telling you her story.

Gail graciously responded to several questions I posed about the impact of her diagnosis on her female friendships:

Do you believe that there is a sisterhood of breast cancer survivors? If so, why?

If you'd asked me that before I went on tour for my book, I wouldn't have known since I was the first (still am) in my circle of friends to be diagnosed with breast cancer. I didn't join any support groups either. I have to admit I felt very alone. But as I toured the country this fall and winter, I met survivors and felt an instant and immediate bond. There was really nothing that made me feel better than a survivor telling me that my book touched her, made her feel less alone, helped her understand the feelings she was feeling.

I think the reason there is this instant connection is that receiving a cancer diagnosis is like being forced to walk through fire. It isn't something you choose. It isn't something you can conjure in your mind. And once you've walked through it alters your perceptions of life forever. Life is different. I think survivors bond because they have been forced to feel and see and taste and smell and live life through a different lens. I meet a survivor now and it's like we share a secret language.

What are the range of reactions (so aptly described in your book) that friends have to someone who is diagnosed with breast cancer?

Everyone meant well and all of my friends were very generous. They brought me food and flowers and took care of my children but few knew what to say. I think that was because their own fear got in the way and understandably so. But the hardest thing was seeing myself as someone else's worst fear. Feeling their dread. They didn't even have to say anything for me to feel it.

But a couple of friend encounters stand out in my mind. Just before my surgery when I was in a very funky funk, one of my best friends came over and told me, "If you have to shave my head, I'll shave mine in solidarity." Luckily I didn't have to but her words made me feel like she would walk through the fire with me. That she wasn't afraid of me. That she didn't feel differently about me.

After my surgery, I ran a half marathon with that same friend and another one of our friends. After the race we were talking old boyfriends and sex and I told them I didn't feel very sexy with all my scars. They talked me into showing them my worst scar and inched my shirt down and they stared at a minute before one of them said, "Scars are hot! I think it makes you sexier."

Did you rely on your female friends for practical advice and help?

Not so much advice but, as I said above, they brought food and helped with my children and showered me with love and concern, Honestly, I didn't even know I had so many good friends until I was diagnosed. I was absolutely blown away by the love and support that surrounded me.

Did your friendships change at all since you were diagnosed? Did you dump some friends and add others? Did you get closer to some and feel more distant from others? What accounted for the changes?

Great question! Cancer brought clarity to my life and gave me license to declutter my life. So yes, some friendships, the ones that were draining me, fell away. I felt like I didn't have time to waste on relationships that weren't mutually enriching.

But it also made me aware of the depth of some of my friendships and deepened those bonds. My best friend helped me get my feet back on the ground. Literally. Soon after my surgery she came over and told me to put my running shoes on and pulled me out the door and forced me to put one foot in front of the other.

Irene S. Levine, PhD is a freelance journalist and author. She holds an appointment as a professor of psychiatry at the New York University School of Medicine and is working on a book about female friendships which will be published by Overlook Press.

Friendship by the Book is an occasional series of posts on about books that offer friendship lessons.