I was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer in April of 2011. I had effectively sidestepped medical drama my entire life (I'm not counting a tonsillectomy at age 7 or the time a door slammed on my index finger and the top had to be reattached or even the time a fish hook lodged itself in the roof of my mouth when I was little and my grandparents were fishing from their porch in Atlantic City). I held no truck with medical drama. And then, well, cancer. Or, as I have come to call it, The Big See.
I was in my 50s, working a hugely stressful job, taking care of everything except myself as per usual, as had been the case my entire adult life. And then: Full Stop. Almost like a cartoon zooming through the desert (I'm thinking Road Runner) and then catapulting over a cliff.
Another metaphor that comes to mind is of driving for days, years, way over the speed limit, not stopping, never stopping. And then there's an impediment in the road and you have to slow down and stop and figure out how to get around it, only there is no getting around it. So you learn a new way to navigate. The impediment is cancer. And I learned a new way to live with the knowledge of it as it would always be present in my body. Metastatic Breast Cancer doesn't go away -- you contain it, you tame it, you engage in what they call "watchful waiting."
We talked last night in my wellness group at Gilda's Club about the extreme language around cancer that irks us no end. "You can beat this!" "You're a survivor!" "So and so lost the battle against cancer." "She fought the good fight." Which begs the question: Why is cancer always referred to as a fight? Why is it that when someone has diabetes, MS, ALS, hepatitis C, or heart disease, they aren't fighting it -- it's a condition. They have a disease. Fighting is stressful. Fighting takes energy. We need our energy to stay on track and take care of ourselves when we're dealing with cancer in our lives.
I choose to see cancer as a chronic condition. It's something I need to deal with every day. It calls on strengths I never knew that I had. But I don't want to elevate it to some kind of noble calling. At the same time, there's no question it has changed my life and changed the purpose of my life. Since I was diagnosed over four and a half years ago, more than ten of my friends now have cancer. I want to make it easier for myself - and for them - to live with this new hard reality.
One thing cancer has done for me is strip the need for artifice, which is a tremendous gift. I'm honest, I'm truthful, I'll tell you how I am and I won't sugarcoat it. Life is frankly too short for lying. What's the point? I find that I'm not the one who feels weird and out of sorts when I tell the truth; more likely the other person is the one to sustain the shock. Like the time I asked a teenage boy if I could sit down in the handicapped seat he was lounging in on the subway because I have cancer in my spine and my back hurt (I don't play that card too often, but I have no problem playing it when necessary).
I recently sat down with my friend of many years, Dr. Neha Sangwan, who published a book earlier this year called TalkRx: Five Steps to Honest Conversations That Create Connection, Health, and Happiness. Dr. Sangwan is an internal medicine physician who realized that her patients often had one thing in common: they did not know how to effectively communicate, and the stress of this eventually led to a breakdown in their health. She now trains medical professionals and corporate teams all over the world and I have no doubt she is changing the world for the better.
Neha and I sat down for a conversation on my birthday, the fourth anniversary of my diagnosis, to talk about how everything in my life had changed with the knowledge of having cancer. For me, cancer was a catalyst that woke me up to how I was living my life, and inspired me to make changes that had been needed for a very long time. Am I saying I'm happy that it happened? Hells, no. But any situation that makes you stop, pause, and learn to live in the present can be valuable. And there is no doubt that cancer did that for me, which is why I call it The Big See.
My conversation with Dr. Sangwan can be seen here.
I'd love to hear your thoughts. Are you living with cancer? Are you taking care of someone who has cancer? Either way my love goes out to you. We need you to be there, to look into our eyes and see us, and be real with us. That's how you can honor the journey we're on.