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)