Sixteen years ago, Jill was diagnosed with breast cancer. A routine mammogram showed signs of what would eventually be identified as a pre-invasive carcinoma. In the weeks that followed, we would learn that her prognosis was optimistic. Medical statistics said we could expect a good outcome. In a way, we were lucky.
In the first days, of course, we only knew that this was some kind of cancer. We didn’t know what to expect, and we were scared.
We also knew we had a lot to learn. So I was not surprised when my wife began to find out everything she could about the disease and the choices she would face. She was determined. And she was aware, I think, that the intensity of her investigations would serve as a useful distraction from the anxiety. She also was pissed off that this was happening to her.
At the time, she wasn’t eager to share the diagnosis with others. I can still hear her declaring, “I don’t want anyone feeling sorry for me.”
She set her jaw and went to work.
As best we could, we would travel this road together — the serial waiting rooms, the multiple doctor’s visits, the consultations, the multiple biopsies, the surgery and recuperation, all of it. I like to think my support was helpful.
But it was always true that only one of us had been diagnosed with cancer. She was the one being prodded and squeezed and subjected to various small indignities.
She was the brave one. I was just trying to do the best I could. I felt guilty that she had cancer and I didn’t, and I felt inadequate to the task of making it all go away.
In the beginning, we were surprised about the uncertainty associated with identifying the extent of the cancer. We would learn about needle and surgical biopsies, what pathologists do and what it means to be looking for “clean margins.”
As in much of life, it turns out, you sometimes make decisions based on results that are ambiguous, and you sometimes make decisions for which there are no guarantees.
In the middle of deciding what to do, we tried to take a vacation. What a dumb idea. Wherever we traveled, the anxiety traveled with us. We knew what was waiting for us when got home.
For too long, people didn’t talk about cancer, probably for reasons of superstition more than anything else.
So there is a loneliness that comes with a cancer diagnosis, as if this doesn’t happen to other people. Yet we count numerous friends who have dealt with the disease. About one in eight women will develop breast cancer during her lifetime, according to the National Cancer Institute.
This should be useful information for all of us because it shows the importance of finding a cure, and it reminds us why we support programs that support the women who are dealing with breast cancer.
And — please note — it testifies to the importance of promoting early detection of the disease. Thanks to an early diagnosis, my wife would become a cancer survivor.
According to the California Cancer Registry, about 71 percent of breast cancers are now diagnosed at an early stage, and the mortality rate for breast cancer continues to decline.