A Tale of Two Metastases

Two young women whom I have come to know and respect have stage IV (metastatic) breast cancer. Which means that unless some medical miracle were to take place fairly soon, both of them can be pretty certain breast cancer is going to take them out before their expected life spans.

Woman A has become an activist. Her anger burns like a flame. It nourishes and sustains her. She attends conferences for breast cancer advocates, and one of her blogs focuses her fierce intelligence on pink ribbon culture, examining the financial records of large organizations like Susan G. Komen for the Cure. She has rightly pointed out that in spite of saying their mission is to find a cure, they devote less than 10 percent of their (considerable) money to research. Advocates are sometimes unfairly labeled as humorless, but she’s far from it. Many of us look forward to her wickedly funny tweets from the chemo lounge.

Woman B lives her life offline, and for the most part, refuses to acknowledge breast cancer’s existence. Her one concession is to take part in survivor events that some would consider frivolous. (On a related note, I’ve read comments from women with metastatic breast cancer who’ve been discouraged from taking part in such events or groups, as if stage IV cancer is contagious. All I can say is shame on people who would shun someone that way.) When the doctors told her most people with her diagnosis can expect to live for three years, she said, “I’m not most people.”

If you interpret this as denial, you’re missing the point. Denial is when your diseased breast keeps swelling, and instead of going to a doctor you stuff your bra with toilet paper on the other side so your family members won’t notice. (Sadly, this is a true story I heard from an oncologist. Fear is incredibly powerful.)

Yet there are similarities. Both of these women have dodged a couple of bullets during recent hospitalizations and issued mordantly funny tweets and texts. Both have bounced back to do what she does best–live, laugh, love and raise hell in her own way. Both of them use the euphemism “Good times” to describe chemotherapy (a.k.a., poison) and its attendant horrors–nausea, vomiting, hair loss (including eyebrows and eyelashes) and constipation, to name just a few. Which of these very different approaches is correct?

A: The activist.

B: The private person.

C: Both of them.

You’re probably way ahead of me on this, but the correct answer is C: They’re both right. No one can tell you how to handle the Cancer Beast, whether you’re in the cheap seats like I was or in in the ring, staring down those fangs like these valiant women are. Both of them will be my heroes for as long as I live, because they are living life to the fullest and showing the rest of us how to live, no matter where that takes us.

(To Anna and Pam, with much love)

ArtBra KC Defies Cancer, Celebrates Life

On Friday night I got to see my dear friend Pam, pictured here, and her mom Shirley model bras as part of the first annual ArtBra KC event. It’s modeled after a similar event in Austin that was started by Shauna Martin. The young attorney noticed there were no survivorship groups for young women in Austin, so she started one, the Pink Cowgirls. As they looked for fundraising ideas, they found a group in Australia that did a funky bra calendar and decided to do something similar, asking artists to decorate bras that could be modeled and auctioned.

When Shauna’s mother in law, Sharon Butler Payne, was also diagnosed with breast cancer, she decided to bring the event to Kansas City. It sold out quickly, with some 400 people attending.  Twenty-two women at different stages of life and different ends of the cancer spectrum were models.

All of them have a story, and none of them have sugarcoated the fear or pain. In an interview with the Kansas City Star*, Michelle Carder shared how she burst into tears the first time she saw herself in the mirror, and how much it meant to her to stand with other women and share “the one thing we’re probably most self-conscious about.” In that same article, ordained minister Geraldine Watson said five people on her father’s side have died of cancer. She was diagnosed with advanced breast cancer in 2003. (*The KC Star article is no longer available on their website but is posted at fundraisingfirms.com. It’s worth a read–particularly Reverend Watson’s story about the little old lady in the waiting room when she was diagnosed.)

Pam was first diagnosed in 2006 and discovered her cancer had metastasized in 2009. She is 39 and has a 12-year-old son, Ethan. The emcee introduced her as having metastatic cancer and shared her nickname The Warrior Princess, which came from a poem I wrote for her. Pam is a warrior because she refuses to let cancer rule her life. Like everyone else at the event, she strutted her stuff and it was beautiful to see.

Pam may not be the best baseline because she’s drop-dead gorgeous. But every last one of these women, tall and short, young and old, slender and zaftig, was beautiful. They all know cancer is not fun. They all know it may, and in some cases will, get the upper hand. But on Friday night, they denied it. Their joy, beauty and defiance were wonderful to behold.

(Proceeds from the event are going to the Patient in Need program at Missys’ Boutique, a nonprofit shop at the University of Kansas Cancer Center. The program helps women who can’t afford the wigs, cosmetics or specialized bras that can help them feel normal during treatment. Missys’ itself is in honor of two young moms who lost their battle with breast cancer in their 30s.)

Poem

The Summer Day

by Mary Oliver

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

(For Roxie, Daria and Sarah. -j.f.)