P.T.A. – Topic of Cancer


Two years ago, my life took a left turn.
The phone rang.
The biopsy was positive.
I had breast cancer.

I am not alone. Look around any Starbucks. Chances are every eighth woman in line will get that call eventually. Twelve-percent of American women are diagnosed with breast cancer at some point in their lives. How many women are you friends with on Facebook?

I’m luckier than most. My cancer was caught early. I was treated at Memorial Sloan Kettering. I literally had some of the best care in the world. And because of recent advances in genetic testing, I didn’t have to go through chemo or radiation.

I’m incredibly grateful.

And I’m pissed as hell.

Most of my women friends can do that –have two wildly different emotions at the same time. I’m not sure that many men can. Most of them seem to have a specific emotional bandwidth. My best friend, Liz stage-managed my wedding as she was filing for divorce. She was full of joy for my marriage and devastated by her own, at exactly the same time.

Before the phone rang that day, I thought I knew where my life was going. I’d been a work-at-home mom for a few years, but I was moving out into the professional world again. My life had led me to the “nonprofit sector” mainly fundraising, management, and grant writing. It made sense. I was moving forward, headed somewhere.

But then my life slid sideways.

After the phone call, everything moved quickly, but the time between diagnosis and treatment felt like forever. The weeks revolved around anxiety, doctors’ appointments, and a pretense of normalcy.

People tell you that “Not knowing is the hardest part.”
But knowing is the hardest part.
Treatment is the hardest part.
Surgery is the hardest part.
Recuperating is the hardest part.
Finding your life again is the hardest part.
The hardest part is the part you’re going through.

Every doctor’s appointment reminds me of how lucky I am.
And I hate each and every one of them.

The lobby of the Memorial Sloan Kettering Evelyn Lauder Breast Center on Manhattan’s Upper Eastside is like walking into a really nice business hotel in Cleveland or Dallas or San Diego. There is no shocking pink or sharp smells of illness. Plush sofas and armchairs of forgettable, muted sage and beige invite you in to relax. Carpets hush the clipped footfalls of the nurses. The thermostat is adjusted for the comfort of women experiencing medically induced hot flashes. The rest of us wear sweaters and scarves.

Even the exam robes are thoughtful designed. Gone are the deposable blue, straightjackets that I always find myself clutching closed, so that my boobs don’t flop out. Instead, Sloan Kettering swaddles you in soft, spa-like, dusty coral, seersucker bathrobes. Every time I put one on, I wonder, “Whose job was it to pick out these robes?”

Yes, this is as good as it gets. I’m lucky.

And I hate it.

I’ve been fileted and rearranged. In other words, eight hours of on the operating table for reconstruction by the head of plastic surgery, an artist with a bad bedside manner. He did a great job. They match. I can wear low cut dresses without feeling like a freak. I buy department store bras, no special contraptions needed. Sure, I’ve lost sensation, but that’s to be expected. In fact, I have more feeling than I thought I would have. At my last appointment, he proudly announced to the visiting surgeon trailing him, “This is as a good as it gets.”

I don’t have anything to complain about.
And yet, I’m angry.

I’m told I’m brave, that I’m a survivor. I’m not sure what is brave about doing something that will let me see my daughter grow up. It’s not like there were any other options in my case. If I hadn’t shown up for surgery, the cancer would have killed me eventually.

Today, the cancer is gone, but there’s no such thing as cancer-free or remission anymore. I’ll always be a cancer patient.

I wake up stiff from drug therapy. There are “beautiful scars” that will never disappear. I may never be able to go back to kickboxing, which I had discovered the year before the phone rang. My daughter will always worry about me and about herself.

I’m closely watched by some of the best doctors in the world. I have follow-ups with them every four to six months. If there’s even a hint that something might be wrong, I’m whisked off to an ultrasound or an MRI. If the cancer came back they’d catch it.

I’m lucky. I know I’m going to be OK.
And every time I walk into that lovely, non-invasive lobby, I want to scream.


This post is part of the series   P.T.A. : Parenting Through the Apocalypse (my occasionally fictional life.)






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Maud Kersnowski Sachs

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  • Thank you for this. It so says how I feel. People always say to me you are so lucky but I don’t feel so lucky. Only someone diagnosed will ever understand.

  • Hello. It has been about 4 years since I went through my treatment. I still have the anger about it. I get the feeling of being punched in the stomach every time I walk into the cancer center for a follow-up. God bless.

  • Everytime I feel alone I come across a story like this, it’s just how I feel and it’s hard and if you have not gone through this you wouldn’t understand. So thank you for sharing!

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