Co-survivors: The “angels” that surrounded her
We're not alone in our journeys through breast cancer. Our co-survivors -- I call them angels -- are part of our lives and part of our healing. They are our voices when we can't find our own. They are our strength when our courage fails us. They are our laughter when things get rough. They are our cheerleaders and our shoulders to cry on. They teach us that breast cancer is a collective experience and that if we'll just look, we'll find all kinds of angels hiding in our wings.
Before I had breast cancer, I really didn't give much thought to my place among the many. I assumed lots of roles: mother, wife, friend, daughter, sister, weekend exercise freak and attorney, but I spent lots of time feeling I was, fundamentally, on my own. It took a while and an illness to hit me upside the head and make me realize that much of life is in fact a collective experience and that we're all better for it. Before I found a lump in my breast, it hadn't occurred to me that when we say "but for the Grace of God," we're acknowledging that the ill person, or the sad person, or the grieving person, could just as easily be us. We dodged the bullet this time while someone else didn't, but what about next time? And, even if we manage to live life without being stricken (and don't we all hope that we do), won't we think of ourselves as enormously lucky? Of course we will and of course we will be.
Finding your angelsMy journey through cancer woke me up in lots of ways and, without intending to be a modern day Pollyanna, I have to say it provided me with some grace-filled moments. Some of those moments were an inside job. I learned way more about myself than I sometimes want to know. But the moments I want to talk about here came to me from others. I call those others my angels. And if life ever takes you by surprise, or even if it doesn't, I hope you find your angels too.
There were, of course, the usual suspects. I can't describe how grateful I am to my mother, or how much a part of my healing she was, because there simply are no words (and besides, if I got all soft on her she'd find it harder to give me her motherly advice on everything from my choice of pets to my choice of hair color). My sweet baby girls (who tell me they are not babies anymore!) were an essential part of my recovery as well, though they didn't even know I was sick. They motivated me. They distracted me. They loved me and made me laugh. And they reminded me day in and day out that they were the center of the universe and I better not forget it! My brothers continued to tell me dirty jokes and to pinch my butt and say I was looking good. My best friend made time for me even when it wasn't convenient to do. She held my hand and hung out with me. We laughed, we cried, we gossiped and we went on with life as if the cancer was a head cold -- it would be over soon and there would be homework and dirty dishes and e-mail and deadlines and all those glorious day-to-day drudgeries.
The generosity of othersI imagine most of us anticipate (or at least hope like crazy) that our family and good friends will be there in crisis to support us in whatever way they are able, just as we would support them. But even if for some reason or other they can't or don't, there will be others who will help. I am still, five years and seven months later (but who's counting?), humbled by these other folks who showed up for me. They weren't related by blood or marriage. They didn't owe me a thing. And yet, they gave generously of their time and their talents and their compassion. There was my boss who assured me that my illness would not jeopardize my job, marshaled all the right people to help me, and told me whenever I asked that everything was going to be okay. And I believed him. He always said it with such certainty, when in truth, how could he know? What he did know was that, for whatever reason, I needed to hear him tell me not to worry. So when my oncologist found a lump in my healthy breast minutes before my last chemotherapy treatment and I hysterically called my boss to ask if everything would be okay, he just said "yes." And it was.
There was the woman who barely knew me, but who interviewed my oncologist and my surgeon and then spent a whole day with me away from her professional responsibilities while I walked, stunned, from one doctor appointment to the next. She listened to what my caregivers told me, she waited for me while I got another mammogram, she let me cry and she talked to me from the other side of a curtain while my surgeon did a breast exam that hurt like hell. This woman surely didn't have to help me, but she did.
A little secret: before cancer I was one of those “independent broads.” You know, the kind that think they can do it all with one hand behind their ramrod-straight backs? Before cancer, I would have graciously declined this lovely woman's offer to walk with me. But during cancer, I knew I needed to be receptive in a new way. So instead of saying, "thank you, no," I just said "thank you".
There was the alternative medicine healer who helped me calm my anxiety by teaching me visualization techniques and other mind-based healing methods. Knowing that I can be easily over-stimulated, I generally tried to arrange my chemotherapy for times when there wouldn't be lots of folks in the clinic. One day, however, I was one of a group of four in an alcove with no window. The other women were lovely and chatted amiably. Even so, I started to feel surrounded in a panicky, claustrophobic sort of way. The alternative medicine healer came to see me. She helped me to breathe in a way that made the fluttering in my stomach go from wild flapping to quiet. She also arranged for me to be moved to a different space where there were fewer people and very little noise. She reset my anxiety meter and helped me get through another treatment with my resolve and hope intact.
And there was my colleague who charted the breast cancer course six months ahead of me and then took the time to let me know what to expect. She was a rock, a teacher and a cheerleader. She had done it first and with enormous grace and dignity. She helped me believe I could do it too. We shared stories and told each other how beautiful we looked in our wigs. We confided in one another that sometimes we took them off in our offices, scratched our bald heads and sighed with relief. We even collaborated on when to dump the darned things and go public in meetings with our punk-rock hairdos! I believe we all need guides from time to time and it never hurts to have living, breathing proof that this too, believe it or not, shall pass. I could go on and on.
You are not aloneI was fortunate to be blessed by many angels. It made my journey bearable and I even had a few laughs. I learned I wasn't alone and even more valuable, I didn't want to be alone. I learned that if I took a hand offered to me, there was no telling what gifts I would receive. And I learned that it takes all of us to heal together. So, look around. I bet there's an angel hiding in your wings too.
Sharon Spencer Schlesinger