I was saddened by Olivia Newton John’s death after a long battle with cancer, a diagnosis that first began in her breast, and which spread to other areas. I was also shocked to hear on a talk show that Julia-Louis Dreyfus had her own bout of cancer, breast as well, which shut down her HBO VEEP series for a time. I’d never given the subject much thought, that is until I received my own diagnosis this past June after a typical mammogram, with a pea-sized lump removed on my 64th birthday.
The news was shared as I sat on the exam table in the post-mammogram room at an Orange County medical center. There I am, in the pink lady robe, on a conference call with the radiologist, being informed that the second picture of my right breast showed a suspicious shadow, and that a biopsy was to be scheduled before the week was out. On the following Monday, I got the call that it was positive for carcinoma. Over the years, I sometimes wondered how I’d handle a cancer diagnosis. How did Olivia handle it, or Julia? As for me, I didn’t crumble, I wasn’t overwhelmed with fear, but rather had a surprising “let’s do it” attitude. After finally catching Covid in 2020, I was aware that I’m not immune to these medical occurrences. In the over twenty years of mammograms and checking that box on the medical history chart that my father’s sister had breast cancer in the 1970’s, it was a regular reminder that it was in the family.
I pondered about how to tell my kids, brothers, their families, and when. Or even, should I? But, with a very matter of fact tone, I told my daughters, a dear friend, and my manager at work. I didn’t want to sound any alarm bell by this admission, but rather like a Walter Cronkite (if that name is unfamiliar, look him up) reporting a story, so that the person hearing would follow my cool and calm lead. My girls were fine, asked for some details, but like when they were younger, I’d just answer what they asked. My oldest asked if I’d start to join in the cancer walk; my youngest was quiet, and I broke that silence by asking if she’d be around to drive me home. I did tell my ex who simply asked, “Are you worried?” “No,” I replied. And on to other topics we went.
Many of the procedures were scheduled within the following week, not for any dire necessity, but the luck of the doctor’s scheduling and availability of appointments. The only thing on my mind was making sure I was recovered enough for the three vacations I’d planned for end of June, mid-July, and mid-August. When the doctor said, “I have an opening on July 1.” July 1 – my birthday. I grabbed it, and felt it had a lucky ring to it. It also proved to be a conversation piece as I went from hospital room to hospital room that day with each new nurse or aide asking for my date of birth, I’d perk up and say “today!” – and then say, “well, in 1958.” Once or twice, I just said “7/1/58” and wait for reaction, with most taking a second or two for it to sink in. This interrupted the solemnity of the occasion and brought smiles and good wishes from my surgical team.
Why do I write about this? For two reasons. One philosophical, and the other practical.
My life has become an open book. So “open” in fact that in a self-help book I released about ten years ago, I discussed the panic attacks that plagued me during my twenties and how journaling helped me through it. Sharing that experience over the years, in conversations with other writers, or even with my own kids, has been freeing, and it’s created very productive conversations, mostly about how others struggled with their own anxiety, or had a family member with bipolar, or simply about the benefits of journaling. Each conversation was unique. I could see relief in their eyes as they spoke, I could feel a genuine camaraderie start to form between us in these conversations that’d be remembered long after the words were spoken.
As for a practical reason. Once I had my story written and ready to post on Woman Around Town, I knew I had to make sure my family and close friends heard the news before reading something so personal on the internet. So, a day or two before surgery, I mailed letters to my family. One letter, copied for each family member, was mailed to family members, rather than need to make multiple phone conversations, texting, having to leave messages etc. This way, each person received the news at the same time, in the same way. No hard feelings. Then, by the time they opened the letter, the surgery’d be done. In my last line of the note, I said something like, “it’s over by now, so feel free to call or send me cards and presents.”
The pea-sized carcinoma/lump was easy to remove, there was no sign of any spread, and two lymph nodes were removed for preventative measures. It all went as my doctor predicted as we sat down in her office with charts, and graphs and pictures of what a pea-sized lump looks like, and right before she handed me a pink journal, pen, a heart shaped pillow and a pink blanket. The doctor reminded me that this sort of news is not easy to hear, that I may go through a rush of emotions, I may cry, I may yell, I may want to tell everyone, or I may not want to tell a soul. I should be cautious about who I tell, as most times, others want to share their news, or suggest post-surgery treatment information. I took it all in and was more fascinated how the women who’ve been in this chair took their own diagnosis. For me, it was like I had been told I had a bum tooth that needed removing. That’s just how my mind works. I had no idea what else lay in store down the road, nor could I do anything about it. But two weeks later, I left the hospital, in my daughter’s car, cancer-free.
Since then, I’ve told a few others, ones who would see it on some internet post. In one conversation with a good friend – we’d stayed good friends after meeting in the 1980’s in our Manhattan job – she told me about her own similar experience from 30 years ago. I never knew; she really wanted it quiet, and she has been cancer-free since. She stands there, a few years older than me, strong and funny, and wonderful. THAT was a real boost for me. The one surprise since my surgery was the post-surgical experience. For a few days after the surgery, I had no voice, having had my vocal cords inflamed by the anesthesia tube. That was totally unexpected, but after a visit to the ENT doctor, was reassured they’d recover, no permanent damage. My follow-up visit to the breast surgeon was like a meeting of opposite forces: she advocated for radiation and hormone therapy and probably chemotherapy and I would not.
Let me explain. Because of scientific research that showed the percentages of recurrence in cases like mine, a short stint of radiation was suggested, in addition to hormone therapy. After seeing more charts and graphs, and my extremely low chance of a recurrence, combined with the report that I was cancer-free, I said “no.” But I wasn’t done yet. If a tissue sample sent across country to a California lab proved that I may get cancer in the next nine years, I’d be instructed to consider chemotherapy. No, I said to my doctor. “Oh yes,” she replied. “No,” I said a bit stronger. And with that she handed me the two cards of doctors who I could go to with follow-up questions on it all. We hugged, I said “thank you, thank you, thank you.” I’ll see her again in six months. She is a dear woman, caring, compassionate, and tops in her field. Everyone on her team was welcoming, gentle, and did their job with true commitment. I felt like I was their only patient that day. That the doctor and I disagreed on the post-surgical treatments had no bearing on our relationship. She respected my decision, as I respected her need to explain my options.
Before I left her office on that post-surgical visit, she asked if I’d like to be a part of a breast cancer fundraiser happening the following weekend. Pink tee-shirts would be given out, everyone would get a goodie bag of treats, and it’d be a real boost to the breast cancer survivors. I had to think about that. A breast cancer survivor. I didn’t feel like one. I didn’t know if I wanted to wear the crown of one. Many other women had gone through worse than I, who’ve had both breasts removed, or have had horrible chemotherapy experiences, sometimes feeling the side effects years later: those are the survivors. I was just a lucky lady who had day surgery, enjoyed three marvelous vacations immediately following, with the only post-surgery activity I have is planning my next trip.
What’s your story? Woman Around Town would love to hear from you. Send your essays (no more than 300 words) along with your contact information to MJ Hanley-Goff MJGOFF758@GMAIL.COM. MJ will write a followup story to share your thoughts during October, breast cancer month.
Photos by MJ Hanley-Goff