08/05/2013 12:47 pm ET Updated Oct 05, 2013

Native Speakers of Cancerspeak

"If you're going through hell, keep going." -- Winston Churchill

"During chemo, you're more tired than you've ever been. It's like a cloud passing over the sun, and suddenly you're out. You don't know how you'll answer the door when your groceries are delivered. But you also find that you're stronger than you've ever been. You're clear. Your mortality is at optimal distance, not up so close that it obscures everything else, but close enough to give you depth perception. Previously, it has taken you weeks, months, or years to discover the meaning of an experience. Now it's instantaneous." -- Melissa Bank

"Life is a shipwreck but we must not forget to sing in the lifeboats." -- Voltaire

"Be like the bird that, passing on her flight awhile on boughs too slight, feels them give way beneath her, and yet sings, knowing that she hath wings." -- Victor Hugo

Some 40 years ago, at the age of 21, I was diagnosed with Stage I cervical cancer, and underwent cryosurgery, on the spot, as it were. Since then, I have undergone needle biopsies of what have always turned out to be benign cysts, filled with chartreuse "ichor," in both breasts, and had to do over (and over again) mammograms and ultrasounds of my breast tissue, when areas of calcification or other breast changes, year to year, alarmed various and sundry technicians.

Being a woman in the age of cancer and "cancer technologies" has not been a walk in the park, but thus far it has beaten the alternative: being ambushed by cancer in one of its high-digit stages and taken out post haste.

Considering their diminutive proportions, my breasts have generated hubbub and alarm incommensurate with their size, and I've weathered angst-ridden weeks, enduring mammograms, untrasounds and biopsies, then awaiting test results. Where are those cysts, I once asked my mammographer? How can they hide out in so very little real estate?

So, having taken the fact of suspicious breast cysts on board, seemingly for the duration of my life on this planet, and after that early cryosurgery, I have become vigilant: annual mammograms and echos and PAP smears have been facts of this woman's life since 1972. Endless tests, iffy results, and the attending anxiety have been my lot.

I am vigilant, but I also know that tests or no tests cancer may well come sneaking up on me in some subtle form or other. Wearing this all-too-human flesh, worked upon by the swirling miasma of pollutants and ambient radiation in which we all now swim in the 21st century, I am (like us all) at risk for cellular mayhem, and simply barring the door as best I can may not suffice to keep the Crab at bay.

In just the past five years, nine women dear to me -- close relatives and long-time friends -- have given up their breasts, wombs and even (three) their lives to cancer. Two others are at the end of this incarnation, felled by lung cancer. (These women were heavy smokers whom I nagged for decades, to no avail.) Most of my stricken sisters, however, have been vigilant health fanatics, cast very much in my own mold. One is a self-described reiki master and lifelong yogini. But cancer has knocked and gained admission, even to those doors most assiduously locked against it. To harbor cells gone awry is our common condition, and always has been. That so many of us fight off successfully our silent interior mayhem (or coexist with it), to die of old age, is what is truly remarkable.

Conversations with women living with or dying of cancer (and the distinction is not always possible to make) comprise a kind of rarefied discourse not many of us master. In fact, these conversations seem to be spoken in their own peculiar language, a dialect few of us study, either as speakers or listeners.

There are few, fluent "native speakers" of cancerspeak. A pity.

I have been so long acquainted with death, disease and "deformity" that the so-called sick room is not one I fear to enter. I have sat with the dying. I have held the dying through from this side to the other. I have, perhaps, said things to the dying they did not expect to hear (nor did I expect to utter). There can be a lot of ribald laughter in sick-rooms, I have found -- a lot of intense and ecstatic discourse and a lot of depthless intimacy. A lot of pain. A lot of pain shared and released.

My cousin, now undergoing reconstructive surgery after a sudden, bolt-from-the-blue radical mastectomy, did not expect me to say to her that I myself am not particularly attached to my own breast tissue, let alone any of this culture's definitions of femininity. I admitted that faced -- not so long ago -- with twin breast lumps and biopsies scheduled the very next day by my hair-on-fire gynecologist, I would have consented without hesitation to bilateral mastectomies and sought no subsequent reconstruction.

Only a somewhat-nuts yogini, or an ancient Amazon, would say as I have, that breasts really do just get in one's way, and seem to have been designed almost entirely for the enjoyment of infants and American men, as opposed to the women compelled to haul them around all day. (Oh, to have back the untold hours I've spent shopping for bras!)

But then, I admit to being a very odd bird. I have never defined myself according to the existence of my secondary or even primary sexual characteristics. Breasts? Genitalia? These were never, for me, what made me a woman, let alone a person. The biblical verse, "If thine eye offend thee, pluck it out,"-- despite its Pythonesque air of nonchalance beneath the blade of the guillotine, has always been my mantra when faced with a dire well-confirmed diagnosis.

When my lumbar spine separated at L4/5, I scheduled surgery for the earliest possible date. "Can you do it next week?" I asked my neurosurgeon. Why wait? The risks were grave, my doctors were stars, I could end up a paraplegic if I hesitated. I went into that operating room in great tranquility and came out fighting.

If a breast -- if two -- should turn on me, I believe I would also not hesitate, but encourage my surgeon to be absolutely certain she, he, had been as thorough as possible.

Of course, until the moment one receives the diagnosis -- Stage IV breast, colon, lung, liver, endometrial or pancreatic carcinoma -- one does not truly know how one will react or respond. I will grant you that. Some of my women friends have not even felt able to divulge the nature of their diagnoses, their surgeries, to others dear to them. For them, still, in 2013, cancer bears such a stigma that they cannot even speak its name.

Others, however, -- and not women I would ever have predicted would be so forthcoming -- have just let all and sundry (all of Facebookiana, for example) know they've just had a breast lopped off, and are doing well after the fact. Bravo, I say!

Also, I myself decided long, long ago to be proactive about prevention (diet, exercise, avoidance of known carcinogens), vigilant about screening, ruthless about treating and fearless about sharing.

Sometimes, of course, as in the case of a beloved friend's late wife -- whom we're all still noisily mourning some six years on -- none of the above suffices to save us, or even ease our way. Alma was simply going to die of endometrial cancer and "die hard," no matter the girl-scout life she'd led, the tests she'd diligently scheduled, the treatments she'd undergone, the shout-outs for alternative care she gave to all and sundry in the last year she was granted among us -- none of it mattered at all.

And so, we talked, Alma and I, of dying, and she met those discussions head on, as she had all and everything else in life.

The way we as women now live with and die from cancer is morphing, but I for one am glad to see the discourse on the subject spreading out -- widening like fresh water invading salt.

When the alarm is sounded -- and may it come early, at Stage I or II -- it is, I feel, best to have all hands on deck, everyone at battle stations. We squeaky wheels will do better than those suffering in silence, whether we succumb or not. In the case of my husband's late first wife, Caroline, diagnosed with all-but-inoperable Stage IV endometrial cancer, remission -- a long, fruitful remission -- was in reach. My husband (then hers) networked like crazy and located Donnie Yance, an herbalist who has developed rigorous naturopathic protocols to fight off the disease. Unequivocally, I can state that Yance's approach worked for Caroline as long as she adhered to it and is working today for another woman friend living very well indeed with a rare blood cancer.

We are all called upon to study, if not master, the language of cancer, to make a stab at becoming native speakers, even if talking about this malady may not effect a cure (physical or spiritual), or even influence one iota the course of the disease.

All of us here enter at the same small door, and exit through the same obscure door. It behooves us to light one another's ways forward with whatever illumination we can. The light we shed may only brighten our own way to the tomb, but it may well illuminate a path up and out for another.

Read more about Donnie Yance's Eclectic Triphasic Medical System.

For more by Elizabeth Boleman-Herring, click here.

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