Given all of the hoopla around Breast Cancer awareness, it's easy to think when you're diagnosed that you will immediately be enveloped in a fluffy pink cloud of support where everyone and anyone you encounter urges you to endure, overcome, buck up, beat the odds and cheerily join in the walking marathon mass of survivors and their selfless loved ones for the three-day, the one-day, the 5K, the every day fight for a cure.
I know that I did.
The predominant media portrayal of cancer as an uplifting transformational tool contributes to the popular mythology. The Lifetime movie, "Five," the stories of five breast cancer patients in one film debuting earlier this week had super megawatt female star power surrounding it in the form of Jennifer Aniston, Demi Moore and Alicia Keys. They all seemed so happy in the promotional clips.
Cancer is a main character in the testosterone-dipped male buddy movie, "50/50," an adaptation of a true story of the screenwriter's bout with the illness. Cancer even seems funny. And the popularity of Showtime's "The Big C" poses a dilemma for the writers: its renewed third season next year means the main character with Stage 4 cancer must survive.
In 2011 the breast cancer club will involuntarily enroll an estimated 290,000 women who will find tumors in their breasts, according to the American Cancer Society. Approximately 2,140 men will be diagnosed this year with breast cancer as well. Breast cancer is the most common cancer in women in this country, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and one of the leading causes of death for women.
Of the 9.8 million cancer survivors in this country, the largest percentage, 22 percent or 2.5 million are women surviving breast cancer, according to the National Cancer Institute. It's a well-funded club, in large part thanks to Susan G. Komen for the Cure, the best known breast cancer brand, that has raised $1.9 billion since 1982 in its mission to end the disease.It's Chicago affiliate, Komen Chicago, has raised $10 million since 1987.
Before cancer arrived unannounced and uninvited like a stealth bomber, I felt brainwashed, picturing the diagnosis would yield tattoos of pink ribbons, car magnets, strawberry cupcakes delivered daily to my door and a universal pass on mundane matters I no longer cared to attend to.
Five years ago this month, I was told I had breast cancer. It is the pivotal point marking my personal timeline from BBC (before breast cancer) to ABC (after breast cancer). I was slightly amused -- just slightly -- that I became aware of my Stage 1 breast cancer during breast cancer awareness month, as if on cue. I had always considered myself on top of the trends.
This month I have officially survived a hurdle of mortality rate predictions -- one of the first set of numbers handed to you as a patient: the chance that you will be alive in five years. I know that I am lucky. Believe me. I think of the possible alternatives every day.
But what no one tells you -- even in October, the month of Breast Cancer Awareness when all brands of pinkapalooza from pink hair extensions at the salon to scarves and t-shirts from auto manufacturers are ubiquitous -- is that you're in for some shockers.
Sure, some well-written cancer memoirs such as S.L. Wisenberg's 2009 "Adventures of Cancer Bitch" or Shelley Lewis' "Five Lessons I Didn't Learn From Cancer (And One Big One I Did)" from 2008 are honest, raw, even a little cynical and darkly humorous in parts. Still, the lasting media images of patient and disease are rosy and charming.
I was unprepared then for the mini-nightmares such as horrifying posts on cancer sites (and here's the thing, once you have cancer, a cancer site on the Web is vastly different from your personal, physical site of cancer on your body) to the insensitive stories from acquaintances about friends of friends and second cousins of neighbors who died quickly with precisely the same diagnosis as me.
I didn't expect my three sons -- then 17, 15 and 12 -- so silently terrified and distraught at the thought of losing the only parent they have, to be angry. At me. No one prepared me for their confusion, denial and inability to empathize immediately following the surgery, radiation treatments and initial recovery. It took months for me to be able to tell them honestly how I felt, because any hint that I was less than perfectly fine made them furious. I understand their fears now, but at the time, it would have been great if one of them could have just made me a cup of tea.
It did not surprise me that my sisters were there for me -- they always are -- driving me to surgery, waiting for me bedside when I awoke, calling and taking over my daily chores at home. I am immeasurably grateful. My close women friends made me dinner, sent caramels and pajamas, as I have done for some of them when they need it. But it was my brother Paul who drove me or met me at my brachytherapy treatments, cracking jokes and performing imitations in the waiting area that kept me laughing during each anxious visit.
My partner was kind, deliberate in his assurance, but unaware that the diagnosis made me more ambitious, not less. We stayed together four more years, but no longer. I am appreciative of the love he demonstrated, but am sure now that he did not comprehend how my dance with mortality reconfigured me. Being handed a chart with my possible expiration dates made me more, not less, ambitious and hard-working in my career and led me to pay more, not less, attention to my sons. Being sick did not make me want to relax more, slow down and step away. It convinced me I want to be moving fast in the middle of all the lovely chaos right up to the end.
Perhaps the most fulfilling surprise in the narrative of my cancer is Dr. Kambiz Dowlat. He is a renowned Rush University Medical Center breast cancer specialist who will be honored today in Chicago as one of a dozen "Pink Tie Guys," men who make a difference in the fight against the disease. It is the first group of men honored by Tribune Media Group and Komen Chicago, including former Mayor Richard M. Daley, Larry Wert of NBC Chicago and Stephen Bonner of Cancer Treatment Centers of America.
To me, Dr. Dowlat is more than the recipient of an award. He is the surgeon who saved my life.
A stranger until we met in his office for the biopsy of my thumbnail-sized tumor, he spoke respectfully and kindly, never condescending or abrupt. He answered all my questions thoughtfully, some I am sure I asked more than once. After the initial diagnostic procedure, I was pretending I was not internally collapsing in terror.
"In your opinion, doctor, do you think it is cancer?"
He did not hesitate. "Yes, it is likely it is cancer," he said calmly. Immediately he outstretched his arms to embrace me, as a father would, or a dear friend.
I began to cry.
"I thought you would like to know right away."
It was cancer, of course; he was right. When it was confirmed by the lab, we scheduled surgery. Every office visit since then -- progressing from every three months to every six months to every year -- and even the emergency visit earlier this year after my radiologist, Dr. Joan Werber, found two new benign lumps near the original cancer site, Dr. Dowlat has offered me a tempered balance of compassion, intelligence, concern, even humor.
I have been a patient of Dr. Werber's for 13 years, and we know much about each other's lives. I know her to be kind and competent and caring. Dr. Dowlat was a perfect stranger.
Since 2006 I have learned there are heroes who fight for your life from corners you expect and also corners you never imagined. I believe you can never be fully prepared for how the announcement will change you and those around you. The single-hued view in reality has many shades and nuances.
From the spectator sidelines of cancer before the diagnosis, it all looked one-dimensional. But when I arrived on this side of cancer, I was able to see a truer picture, one that is clear and unclouded, a broader, richer landscape of many colors.