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A day for something frightening

Today is Halloween. Want to hear something scary?

Today I met for the first time with my oncologist. I have an oncologist. On. Call. O. Gist. It’s hard to say, harder to wrap my head around. I was informed almost a week ago that I have breast cancer, but saying it still just sounds weird.

It’s a slow process, the head-wrapping. At first, my thoughts were: whatever—I’m just going to keep doing my work; this will be an annoyance, a speed bump. Then: well, that grant I applied for wouldn’t be until next year anyway. We caught this early, it’s treatable. This isn’t life threatening. And thoughts along those lines. Then I met with a breast surgeon. I felt removed, as if I was only peripherally involved. But today I met my oncologist, who talked about life expectancy. Weird.

There’s a measure of denial here. This is impossible! I have no risk factors, no family history— etc. I’ve always eaten healthy, exercised daily to stay energetic and I’ve always felt younger than I am. But now I must embrace the idea of five months of chemo. I’m feeling older just thinking about it.

How can you tell when you’re old? Bill Gates claimed, “You don’t really start getting old until you stop learning.” Well, I’m venturing out on a whole new learning curve. I have brand new words: “axillary dissection,” for example, and other surreal phrases. Occult primary—that sounds about right for Halloween. Neo-adjutant chemo. Autologous reconstruction. Adriamycin, Taxol and Cytoxan.

Some time back, when I hit a setback, my younger sister advised me to “get your girls around you.” It proved the right suggestion. But calling friends has been weird too. “Hi, guess what! I have breast cancer!” Is there a proper etiquette? Is it creepy to share the news via text?

Speaking of learning new things, I realized that there’s a right and wrong way to react when someone tells you they have cancer. Don’t: sharp intake of breath, Oh, nooo. That’s terrible! Do: look me in the eye, maybe touch my arm, ask how I’m feeling, express your concern calmly, but sincerely. So far, the score is about two “Don’ts” to two “Do’s.”

Today I’m a swinging pendulum: I need to eat something healthy. No, I need some Halloween candy. It’s a sunny day, I should take a walk. But I’d rather put my feet up and write on my site. I’m feeling positive, no I’m feeling kind of low. I need to start going back to my meditation group.

My friend, a cancer survivor herself, talked about the importance of staying positive. But I’m thinking of my good friend who had breast cancer. Her surgery was scheduled on Halloween, so she spread a rubber spiderweb across her chest to surprise her surgeon! She stayed optimistic, right up until she died. Also I’m trying to imagine staying upbeat while vomiting and losing my hair. No I’m not, I’m picturing wearing a pink t-shirt and walking for the cure.

I really don’t want to publish this dumb essay. I’m just writing to get myself used to the idea. Write "breast cancer" ten times and it won’t seem so ghastly.

Anyway, I’ve figured out what I want to be for Halloween. A survivor.

© 2019 Susan Cummings. All rights reserved. Originally published on [How to grow, while growing older]

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