The c-word

It’s been two years since I got the news.
In an uncharacteristically brief but otherwise standard phone call with my mother – knees, weather, grandkids and the world going to hell in a handbasket – she dropped the bomb.
Or rather, it was more like she slyly “slipped” a grenade  into the conversation. “Well, the weather was just beautiful for the Celtic Fest on Harriett Island ... oh, and your sister, Chris, found a lump in her breast,” she said, almost as if it was an afterthought. “Ok, well that’s all for now – gotta go.”
It was like she pulled the pin, rolled it under the door and then snuck away.
Perhaps, in her lifetime – which involved years of nursing, raising four kids, and working in elder care – she had seen and heard it all. True, a “lump” could be anything – no sense in getting all worked up. And if it was something? Well, cancer is not the death sentence it once was.
But one cannot help but go through the gamut of emotions upon hearing such news. There’s  disbelief (“we don’t even have cancer in our family”); guilt (“why her? I was always the ‘bad’ daughter – plus I’m already bald”); and knee-jerk irrationalism (“Quick. Go to the doctor and get them chopped off!”)
Unfortunately, as we would eventually learn, it was not “just a lump,” and she could not just go in, have a little snip snip and come home with a shiny new pair. Although it was not genetic (good) it was not self-contained (bad.) And with more than two years since her last mammogram, there was no telling if and where it had gone.
The next few months became a revolving door wrought with primaries, specialists and – in a rare bright spot – a surgeon we called “McDreamy.”
As luck would have it, my sister was within driving distance of the Mayo Clinic, renowned as one of the best hospitals in the world. There she was prescribed the standard protocol for her condition: six months of chemo, followed by radiation, surgery and reconstruction. With time of the essence and little time to waffle, we put complete faith in the medical system and its legions of pink ribbonwearers
Fortunately, my sister was armed with a great support system: a husband who chauffered the kids, cooked and cleaned; immediate family nearby; a flexible work situation; and a wickedly witty, if not twisted, sense of humor.
Yes, I know, there is nothing funny about cancer. But when you’re trying on ridiculous Cher wigs, talking to McDreamy about whether you should be a “b” or “c” cup, or your hair finally grows back only to look like Anderson Cooper’s, it’s hard not to find humor in the card the universe has dealt you.
Everyone copes in their own personal way – and, it’s hard to say how you’ll handle it until you’re “there.” (The irony of which is not lost on me, whose denuded cranium is a constant source of concern from strangers. But that’s a story for another day.)
All the rest of us can do is stand by, listen (sometimes to the same story, chemo brain you know), say stupid but well-intentioned things like “cancer sucks” and try to hide that we are utter, bumbling – pardon the pun – boobs.
OK, maybe I wasn’t completely worthless from halfway across the country. After all, I live in Colorado, and as such did the only thing I could think of at the time: I procured my MMJ card (back pain and insomnia, if you must know.) The plan was to send her a little Rocky Mountain high care package to help ease her treatments. Technically illegal, yes, but purely humanitarian – surely the feds would understand. However, that plan fell through when my husband threatened to divorce me if I sent pot through the U.S. postal service or stuff it in my carry-on during a visit over the holidays. Anyway, I can talk about the clandestine plan now, since I scrapped the idea after deciding that seeing “mommy go to the slammer” on Christmas could be potentially damaging to my young children.
However, I did accompany my sister to visit the wig lady and offer some sisterly advice – minus the benefits of THC’s psychoactive properties. In the end we settled on a sporty little brunette ’do – “Paul” for its uncanny likeness to the lead Beatle – which most resembled her own hair. And, in a display of nonfollicular solidarity, I went in for a sassy little red number, “Sharon” (as in Osbourne.) Together, we made for our own middle-aged British invasion of the Mega-Mall

Now, two years later, Paul is on a shelf somewhere, and for the most part, life has returned to normal for my sister. Albeit a new normal, rife with hot flashes, frequent memory lapses and two new “girls” that don’t quite match. But, as they say, it beats the alternative (or as my sister succinctly puts in, “lying on the radiation table.”) And we are hopeful that the side effects – including the insidious PTSD that no one seems to tell you about – will fade with time.
To mark the occasion, I recently flew back to visit. It was bittersweet – as we celebrated her milestone, another family member who had been diagnosed at the same time was not so lucky. The disease had shown how ruthless it can be
And so, all we can do is cross our fingers and be vigilant. Don’t put off for another day what you can do today. Yes, that includes telling those close to you, whether near or far, how much you love them. But, it also includes showing a little love for thyself. In other words – for women of a certain age – stepping up to the glass plate. (It really is no big deal, sort of like walking a tightrope: don’t forget to breathe and just don’t look down.)
And for all the women I know who have been “there,” maybe still are – or sadly are no longer with us – thank you for what you have taught us.
See, as ashamed as I am to admit it, I never really knew what was meant when cancer patients were referred to as “courageous.” Until now.
Witnessing someone wake up every day, get the kids off to school, drive to the chemo or radiation clinic, go to work and repeat. Day after day, month after month. Putting on a stoic face even if you are scared shitless and full of what ifs. What if the laundry finally overtakes the basement? What if no one walks the dog? What if the kids haven’t had a green leafy vegetable in months? And ... what if?
Yet, you take a deep breath, straighten out Paul and carry on into the great unknown, simply because you must.
That is courage.


Missy Votel

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