Saturday, October 11, 2008

The Question of Change

When I was 36 I was diagnosed with Breast Cancer, which makes it sound like it was AGES ago, but I'm only soon to be 39. I am not trying to bring the blog know how I like to keep it superficial and cynical, but recently I've had a lot of people ask me how cancer changed my life, and I found myself unable to effectively articulate the answer. This caused me quite a bit of anxiety because I think there is an expectation that I should be able to say "well, I'm now running 5 miles a day, avoiding soy products, sugar, alcohol, cigarettes, and coffee, volunteering at the ACS, starting my own business, and, oh, by the way my book on my fabulous, sexy, diva cancer experience is going to be published next month.” Because I love these people for having the courage to ask me this question and listen to my rambling answer, I hope you might indulge me one meandering, semi-serious, and most likely uncohesive, entry as I explore the question "how has cancer changed your life." There are the obvious changes to my physical world - I lose my words when speaking, I have to make lists or I forget, it takes a lot more concentration to understand complex concepts (which sucks because that's basically my job), there are scars on my body which are inconveniently placed when selecting summer clothes, and coffee, chocolate, and red wine top my list of “eat at your own risk” foods. But true change takes sustained energy as well as the ability to process the experience. When in the midst of treatment each day brings a new symptom, 7 more shots, 3 visits to Walgreens, or a stay in the hospital and the last thing I wanted to contemplate was how cancer was going to change me; the changes seemed pretty obvious at the time and none of them were metaphysical. I guess what I’m trying to say, is the question is premature but not unwelcome. I am just now feeling strong enough to reflect and find humor and meaning in my experience. I’m a thinker and a planner, so I don’t leap easily into the void and the changes in my life may come slower and quieter than some. They probably won’t be as spectacular as forming a new non-profit group, dedicating myself to The Cure, or writing a book on how sexy cancer is. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve made some decisions in the last year based on an internalized fear that life is too short…bought a fast car, took up river rafting, and travelled a lot. Those are changes, but I don’t think they are the ones that answer the question. So what I’m STILL trying to say is that I continually watch and listen for the subtle ways that cancer has and will change me and my life; a life that involves a husband who was also deeply affected and has been and will be changed; and a brilliant marriage that struggles to redefine itself free of illness.

My favorite change: I have a story that connects me to millions of women one at a time. How has cancer changed YOUR life?


Anonymous said...

"How has cancer changed my life?" It was pre-1968 and I was about 7 years old and learned from eavesdropping on adult conversations that my oldest cousin, Mary, was enduring an unbelievable heartache and pain of cancer. Mary was my mother’s cousin and she was my favorite relative because she seemed to understand me and my cynical pint-sized attitude better than anyone I knew. And she was absolutely beautiful.

When she underwent the 1960s cancer treatments, I was unable to visit her. All I would learn about her was the draconian surgical techniques and massive doses of radiation that doctors were administering and how it altered her appearance. Then the news came that she died. Her mother, my Aunt Marie, nursed her at home where she eventually took her last breath.

Over the years, I would know others who endured, died, or survived cancer. Many were friends like you, or co-workers and family members. I never ask them that question: “How has cancer changed your life?” because I already know that it has in ways that are so deeply personal that the question itself amounts to an intrusion.

When someone talks to me about their cancer treatments or if they talk about someone in their family undergoing cancer treatments, I simply listen. Period.

Buddy Stone.

MToast said...


Nice post.

tallulah said...

In the past couple of years, my Sister was diagnosed with breast cancer, I had a cancer "scare" and had a tumor removed and my Mom was diagnosed with breast cancer. These have affected me in ways I never thought possible and often I think of getting a double mastectomy just to get the doubt out of my mind. But then what? Colon cancer? Kidney Cancer? Always that underlying fear....
I don't even pretend to understand what my Sister and Mom go through on a daily basis. How could I? Could they even put it into words?
I think you wrote this blog beautifully and Buddy hit it right on the head when he said, "I simply listen. Period." Sound words of advice.

jpogue said...

Well, I'm probably happier after cancer than I've ever been in my life. I really know what I want and need to be happy.

However, after 5 years out from my second bout with breast cancer, I STILL have a really hard time remembering the simplest words - and I can just forget remembering someone's name if I haven't known them for years. I read about a year ago, that it takes 10 years to get chemo out of your body. Ok, I feel like I can multiply that by 2 since I've had it twice so I feel like I can use that as an excuse for my stupidity for at least another 15 years!

The only thing I really hate though is after my secound bout, the chemo just zapped my energy. I've had to go on disability because there's just no way I could hold a job. Yea, I "werk at the Merc" a few hours a week, but I sure couldn't work any longer than that. I have someone who comes and cleans my house every couple of weeks 'cause I just can't do it.

I still can't concentrate well enough to read a book.

I traveled to Canada to get new boobs as I wasn't a candidate for reconstruction. The "off the shelf" things you can buy in town are just awful. Just like wearing a couple of sandbags. I wrote a blog about that experience last year.

But, I have to admit, that cancer has changed my life in a very positive way. I've always been active in charities but now I volunteer for a children's grief camp and Casting for Recovery which I absolutely love!

But I suppose weirdest of all, is that yes I've discovered life is short so I don't avoid anything I love. I drink coffee, eat all the chocolate I want, and basically enjoy everything I want to.

I know it sounds corny, but I LOVE my life and have never been angry about cancer. No matter what happens during a day, I tell myself "If that's the worst thing that happens to you today, be grateful."

Go forth and have fun!!!

jpogue said...

Oh, and if you'd be at all interested in Casting for Recovery, it's an awesome 3-day retreat for women who have/had breast cancer. It's a realaxing, mind healing experience that was really helpful to me. I'd be happy to give you more information about it if you want to email me.