I held off posting this for a few hours, thinking there should be some photos or illustrations, some kind of visuals. I can’t think of any right now, and if I ever do, I can come back and add them. Right now, what I want to do is get this out of me before I “worry” the text to death.
This morning I was inspired by a poem in my favorite (and only) online group, Open Group for Bedlam Farm. Not to write one, but to find the poems I’ve written over the years. They’re scattered in five or six places all over the house. In the beginning, there were a lot, but they tapered off as the decades wore on, down to maybe one every 10 years. Last one was around the turn of the century. I made a plan to find the stuff I’d written and put it in one place, for reference or burning, whichever came first.
And that led me to an entirely different train of thought. Boxes are sitting half open, the front layers of books in my 24’ deep bookshelves are piled on the floor, or turned on their backs where they lay, while I follow this. I’ll get back to the scattered poems and a lifetime of journals later, while I think about this.
I lived through the turn of a century! I survived all of the brilliant artists and musicians who died before the age of 30 (30 was a kind of cut-off for a worthwhile life when I was younger); I survived all the people who died before they were 40, and before they were 50, and before they were 60.
I survived all of the famous women who were diagnosed in their 50’s with less advanced cancer than mine was in 2004. I survived Lynn Redgrave, Farah Fawcett, Elizabeth Edwards, and my friend Amy Greer. I outlived Patrick Swayze, Christopher Hitchens, Peter Jennings, and Rachael Carson. Most of them were not young, but they were younger than I am now when they died. My father’s sister Gerry, then his sister Barbara, then my father himself, died of cancer, in birth order.
All of these people “fought” harder than I did. All were optimistic and upbeat (well, maybe not Hitchens). All of them had more people who cared whether they lived or died than I did.
I got my diagnosis on October 5, 2004, a year to the day after my father died of pancreatic cancer. My breast cancer was pretty advanced. The oncologist thought I’d probably had it for 5 or more years by the time of diagnosis. Long enough to get into 15 lymph nodes, and for the medical team to need 5 or 6 tests before starting chemo. They had trouble believing it hadn’t spread to other organs.
I didn’t ask a lot of questions during treatment, and never researched on the internet – I’d done that when my father was sick and didn’t want to know too much. I sent pretty strong denial signals to the medical team from the beginning. I learned that it was stage IIIC at my third chemo session – not by asking, but by opening my file which had been left on the examining table for the oncologist and the pre-chemo run-through. Even then, I didn’t ask any questions, and I didn’t tell the oncologist that I knew.
The only questions I asked were “When will I lose my hair?” And, “The cancer is so advanced that you’re amazed it hasn’t spread to lungs, brain or blood, and my immune system has kept that from happening, and you’re proposing to destroy my immune system?” It was a rhetorical question, and the poor guy didn’t have a good comeback. When I showed up for the second chemo, he said, “I’m surprised to see you. I thought you were going to bolt.”
The chronology: Lumpectomy November 2, 2004. Second surgery to “get the margins” scheduled for late November. Surgeon calls the day before, says “I have good news and I have bad news.” “Give me the good news first.” “Good news is you don’t have to have surgery tomorrow.” “???” “Bad news is I presented your case to the team, and you need chemo.” Chemo December 2004 through March of 2005. Mastectomy April of 2005. Back to work and radiation in June 2005. Last radiation treatment end of July.
I left the hospital 45 minutes after waking up from the first surgery. I went home, made dinner for myself and a friend who was staying over, and voted for Kerry. I had to wait a hour and a half after the mastectomy before they would let me leave (I had to pee “enough” first). While I was waiting at the hospital entrance for a friend to pick me up, my oncologist walked by. He stopped and asked how I was doing. I said “Fine. I just had my boob lopped off.”
After the treatment was over, except for a crippling 6 months of arimidex, I looked up my odds on the “internets.” 33% chance of living five years. That would take me to October of 2009. I remembered the New Yorker cartoon of a couple of “a certain age” looking at each other amid reams of paper. “If we take the late retirement and the early death, I think we’ll be OK.”
Twice I’ve made plans for my cats after my death.
In the fall of 2005, the doctors found something suspicious in the other boob. For two weeks I ignored it, refused a biopsy, visited a friend in upstate New York instead, reconsidered within a month. On my way to the biopsy, I stopped at Mary Coleman’s cubicle and said “You’re taking my cats if anything happens to me.” Mary had lost two cats in the preceding year, and she was catless (or cat-free, depending on your point of view). Ben and Sophie were 5 years old, and Bettina was 15. The biopsy showed nothing. Bettina, died of cancer the year after my treatment, a month after I moved from Philadelphia to Connecticut. Ben and Sophie turned 13 in June of this year, and we’re all still here.
In October of 2010, my oncologist found a lump during a routine physical exam. I said “I’m not going to do anything about this. I can’t go through treatment again.” She understood, said she’d take another look in six months. I spent that winter dying. There was a lot of discomfort in the breast, and there was the neck, back and shoulder pain that appeared after chemo, aging me 20 years in 4 months. (That was a mixed blessing, because at the age of 60 I got to experience reverse aging for 5 years – every year older I got, I felt 5 years younger…)
During that six months, I thought about my cats – three of them again, because a year before, I’d taken in Jerry, who’d been abandoned in my complex to spend a very bad winter alone and outside. A friend of mine had recently asked me to call around and try to find a no-kill shelter for a woman she knew who was going into a nursing home. I called within a 100 mile radius, and there were no spots for cats in no-kill shelters. (That cat did find a home.)
No one I knew wanted a cat, let alone 3 cats. When I took my cats in for rabies shots, I asked the vet, “If you had a patient who was dying, and they asked you to put their cats to sleep, would you do it?” He knew the drill about unwanted cats, and said, “I think of how I would feel about my own cats, and I would do it.” A close friend of mine said she would take my cats when I told her my plans, but she had three collies, all of whom would happily kill my cats, and my cats would be living in her studio, away from the house, and these particular cats don’t cope well with change.
The plan was euthanasia, and I wished it were available for me.
In April of 2011, at my follow-up visit with the oncologist, she said during the exam, “Whatever I felt in October, I don’t feel now.” My left breast stopped hurting almost immediately, and in the next couple of days, I cleaned up the deck, raked and blew and composed leaves, picked up and piled winter rubble in the yard, and moved every stick of furniture in my house. I stopped writing in my journal because I had nothing to write about. I wasn’t dying.
In the fall of 2006 when I retired early and moved to Connecticut, I told my new neighbor Joe that I had enough money to last maybe five years, but that should be enough. Half of it disappeared within three months in 2008 when the economy melted down. This spring when Joe came back from Arizona, he said “Do you remember that seven years ago you said you had enough money to last five years? How is that going?” I said, “You know, I have about the same amount of money now as I had seven years ago!”
Things don’t happen for a reason. They just happen. Or they don’t. One of the things cancer patients say a lot is “Why me?” I hate hearing that. Why NOT me?
Oh, and I’m GRATEFUL to be alive, with my now elderly cats. Jerry didn’t make it. He had feline aids, and went over the bridge with his head in my hands two years ago. Last year, Ben and Sophie hit a big milestone – in cat years, they’re as old as I am now.