Cancer is the news no one is quite prepared to get. It demands a reaction for which most of us have no reference point. All of a sudden, we're sloshing around in information, family stories and preconceptions that may or may not have anything to do with what we'll be fighting.
Most of us do resolve, in that moment, to fight, whether it's to beat the disease or, as a dear friend in his 90s chose, to dampen the pain.
Most of us have no idea of the allies we'll have – an army of technicians, nurses, social workers, financial counselors, doctors, friends, family and people of faith.
Most of us are unaware of the rise of the machines that can do recon anywhere in our bodies, looking for intruders, pinpointing malfunctions.
So, yes, when we get the news, we have no idea what's coming at us, or how we'll meet it, then deal with it.
I thought I might be better at it than I am. Ha.
I am a lumpy person. There's the bony lump on the top of my right foot. There's the lipoma lump on my right arm. It's so big it scares cats. A bunch of fibroids earned me a hysterectomy. And, for years, benign little fibrous patches have been showing up in mammograms of my left breast. Every time they do, I get a needle biopsy, bruise like a bull rider and move along, ma'am, there's nothing there to see, just a bump in the road.
So I wasn't fazed last Thanksgiving season when I got the call-back from the Carol Milgard Breast Center after a mammogram. I knew I had the role: Lumpy Woman, a walk-on, walk-off. Once again, the needle biopsy. Once again, thinking up possible lyrics to “Blue Boob.”
Except, no. This was not a drill.
I got the news just the way it might be delivered in a sitcom on the verge of cancellation. Our family lives like that, banging against deadlines, rescuing anything from meals to cats at the last minute, kidding each other, making rude noises and busting into inappropriate laughter.
At 11:40 a.m., Sunday, Dec. 8, I was about to rise above all that. I was hosting the cookie exchange party my pal Cheryl Tucker founded 25-plus years ago. Six of us meet that second Sunday of the month for a fête that looks, but does not sound, like tea at Downton Abbey until around 4 p.m., when we put on Pink Martini's version of “Auld Lang Syne” and bust excellent vintage lady moves.
Until then, it's a glass of champagne on arrival, our best china, ironed linens, sandwiches without crusts, three kinds of teas and six monologues about how we chose our cookies, and what we learned while making them. Each of us brings a small gift for everyone. All of us strive for perfection, and I pretty regularly fail, but with that soon-to-be-cancelled sitcom flourish.
This year was different. I was just 20 minutes from perfect. All I had to do was scrape the sale tags off the gifts – pink willow teacup sets I'd bought in July. (Yeah, I'd had six months to scrape, but why rush?)
My husband was out getting ice when the phone rang. It was my doctor, with the news. (You're right about the double-take you just did. My doctor called me at 11:40 a.m. on a Sunday. She is the best.) The lump in my right breast was cancer, she said, and we would likely beat it with a lumpectomy and five weeks of radiation. Cancer would be a walk through a point in time, not my whole future. We chose the surgeon she would go to if this were her diagnosis. We agreed that this would take a good deal of mental energy, and I might not be able to write a clear sentence, much less a column. (Yeah, I hear you. Why start now?) We set a start date for treatment after I got back from spending a Mele Kalikimaka with the kids and grandkids.
I took a deep breath, noticed that I should have wiped down the window sill above the sink, and did it.
We hung up.
My husband got back.
“Doc Edwards just called,” I told him. “I have cancer. Can you help me scrape these price tags off the cups?”
Cheryl knocked, and I told her. We agreed that it was a valid excuse for not being quite ready.
Because this is, after all, a sitcom, my mom called from Wyoming between the pot of lapsang suchong and the refreshing Nepali ginger tea. There will be no dying, I told her. And, because she was on the verge of motherly sobs, no crying until I cry. A week later, the daughters in Hawaii and I made the same deal before we made sand tarts and sugar cookies.
We are all tissue-free to date, but I've discovered a disturbing crack in my manners. When people say, “Hi, how are you?” I tell them that I'm whomping breast cancer. To my regret, I have told several people I barely know.
So, for your own sake, don't ask. You'll be forced to endure a hug, and hear a bit more than I should tell you about how the diagnosis has gotten more complicated. Stuff you don't want to know.
Save yourself. Spend your energy on a breast self-exam, and, if it's time, get a mammogram. And next time you pass a bake sale raising funds for cancer research, buy a raspberry bar.