By Gail Konop Baker
I still remember, like a too-vivid bad dream, exactly how I felt when I first heard the words breast cancer in relation to me and my breast.
The Mack truck to my gut, the "Oh my God," the "No, no, no!" The room not a room anymore, the word "room" not a word, the floor a murky cesspool. In fact, Breast Cancer Awareness month reminds me that I will always remember that feeling, or at least fragments of that feeling, during this month every year, every time someone I know has been diagnosed, every time I meet a survivor, when I read about someone being diagnosed, when I see the words breast cancer or breast or cancer, when I think about before I could ever have comprehended that cancer and me could ever be used in the same sentence. Before I could have ever imagined I would write a book about cancer, that I would tour the country speaking about breasts and cancer that even now, almost six years since my diagnosis and three years since my breast cancer memoir was published, I would still receive letters from women on a weekly basis sharing their cancer stories with me. I stand in solidarity with all survivors. I stand in solidarity with every woman who has been or is going through this experience. I feel your pain and fear.
I survived and thrived and was downgraded to hyperplasia after my initial diagnosis, which technically puts me in the pre-cancer zone and often makes me feel, in retrospect, like a fraud in the real cancer world. And yet still, I can't forget how it felt when I didn't know, when I was worried and wondering and unsure what my diagnosis would bring, when they decided to biopsy multiple suspicious areas the day of my surgery, when I sat in the oncologist's office on Valentine's Day and he ran his thick fingers along the edge of my still-swollen scar. How it felt to be forced to stop taking tomorrow and tomorrow and the day after that for granted. How it felt to see the look of pity and fear in other people's eyes, to lay awake at night and cry for my children. How the word "cancer" flipped my world upside down, and how I wasn't sure anyone anywhere could understand my utter disbelief followed by a kind of mortal loneliness I had never experienced before. And how I had to mentally fight my way back to a place beyond fear.
Almost six years since my breast cancer ordeal, and I wonder: "What is my relationship to breast cancer and survivorship now? What does it mean to be a survivor?"
The vivid bad dream is burned into my brain. That much I know. But what is the "after"? For me, the "after" is also vivid. The raw intensity of being forced to face the stark reality of my mortality in my 40s left a lasting impression. The fear of losing my place in this world woke me up to the world. Every day I wake and thank the universe I am alive and healthy. I laugh and cry harder. I give more compliments. I take more risks. I take better care of myself. I love more deeply and with less reservation. I love and relish strong coffee, the drip of fresh peaches on my chin, cold water after a hot run and the eerie way the sky sometimes looks when it melds purples with orange on a summer eve. I even love the queasy feeling I get when I feel unsure, because it reminds me I am alive and feeling. And for this I am beyond grateful.
I am also oddly grateful that I know a little secret I didn't know before. That there are no guarantees for how long any of us will live. I thought I knew, but I didn't really know, on a guttural level, until I heard the word "cancer" in relation to me. I am exquisitely aware of the precariousness and preciousness of life. Even on days when fears arise and I am overwhelmed with the demands and pressures and uncertainties in my life, still, I am greedy for more. I can't help but be awed by the plump cauliflower clouds drifting through the sky, the fall air traipsing goosebumps across my skin, the rhythmic thumping of my heart when I run and jump and laugh and love.
The author of "Cancer Is a Bitch," Gail Konop Baker is a critically-acclaimed memoirist, professional speaker, adjunct writing professor, poet, runner, yogi and mother of three. She is currently working on a book tentatively titled "The Inner Vixen and The Lazy-Boy Man" about the new balance of power in and out of the bedroom in relationships across America. Read her blog on Red Room.