As it turns out, I am more like the woman I used to be before the one who’s facing fifty showed up. It’s a good thing too, considering that breast cancer has little patience for those who don’t fare well with ambiguity and scoffs at people who make plans. People like me. How I used to bemoan the pace of life as a woman attempting to play equally well the roles of mother, wife, daughter, sister, best friend, educator all the while waiting for Tom Petty to call and ask if I would please be one of his Heartbreakers.
A million years ago, I almost went to Stirling University to study English but chose instead to stay in my beloved Belfast, Northern Ireland. to pursue a degree in education. On my side was the conventional wisdom, (more commonly known as my mother’s) that teaching was “a great thing to fall back on.” I have realized it is perhaps one of the greatest things, the science and craft of it keeping me within the profession almost as long as Tom Petty and his other Heartbreakers have been in rock and roll. (Between all my adventures in the school-house and our house, I must have missed Tom when he called to steal me away).
In spite of being so busy for all these years, with no family history of breast cancer, and because I have an obedient streak, I dutifully showed up for all my mammograms, each one clear. Not clear enough, I have since learned. Ill-informed, I did not know to ask if by chance dense tissue could be camouflaging a flourishing cancer. Hardly surprising, then, that I was wholly unprepared and displeased to add cancer patient to my curriculum vitae. Me. With cancer. Seriously? There I was, facing the half-century mark in fine fettle, paying more attention to my health, taking vitamin D, drinking more water, eating cruciferous green vegetables, and running every day. Buoyed by my sister-in-law’s success, I even committed to going from couch-to-5K in nine weeks, and, in a moment of madness, bragged on Facebook that the 2012 Belfast Marathon was within my reach. No doubt this would have given John Lennon a good laugh, life happening the way it does when you are busy making plans.
In a twinkling, when I wasn’t paying attention, I found something. Just like that. Not a lump exactly. But something I hadn’t noticed before, what my doctor would describe as “something distinctly different about my right breast.” I could say I was doing my monthly self-exam, but that would be untrue, as it is for almost every woman I have asked. No. I just happened upon the cancer that was happening to me.
11.11.11 arrived and brought with it a diagnosis that unceremoniously deposited me in a new land, demanding that I put to use my finely honed immigrant skills. A new lexicon baffled me with once familiar words taking on new meanings - staging no longer applied only to the theater, fog replaced the stuff of Van Morrison‘s misty mornings with a kind of cognitive loss, and the cure was found not in hair of the dog but wrapped up in a nice pink ribbon. Then there was the business of dealing with people who were dealing with my breast cancer, and the ever-widening gulf between myself and those who did not and do not fully understand the language, the business, the norms, the politics of Cancer Country, a place where I would find the very best, most noble expressions of humanity along with the very worst.
Such a place was not on my itinerary, nor was the blogosphere. But here I am, at once a part and strangely more apart from the people who know me best. No stronger, no braver, but perhaps a little wiser. With a nod to Gilda Radner’s “delicious ambiguity,” this blog of mine is just a place from which I can take stock, look out and within, learning lessons from the field. Tom Petty was right after all, “You don’t have to live like a refugee.”
Welcome to the neighborhood.