Breast Cancer: A View From Above


An essay on seeing cancer from a childhood treehouse.

I grew up in Anaheim, California, the home of Disneyland. Our house was at the end of a cul-de-sac, and next to us was an open field. And in that field was a most remarkable play place for an 8 -year-old kid to hang out on a lazy summer day, quietly observing the world in perfect seclusion. It was a soaring and magnificent mulberry tree. I suppose it was 40 feet tall, but I was a short kid, so everything seemed bigger back then. I was a quiet kid too, happy to watch and listen and learn as the chipmunks and an occasional red fox ambled by, unaware of a young boy’s silent eyes observing from high above; third branch on the right side, just below the abandoned sparrow’s nest.

I had a name for each part of the tree: the living room, the den, the bedroom, etc. From the kitchen, I could plainly see "Sleeping Beauty's Castle" just a few miles away in the center of Disneyland. I loved the way the world looked from up in that tree. Everything seemed manageable and safe and an arm's length away from inflicting any misfortune to an 8-year-old onlooker. I learned to see the world from my perch and to engage the wonders of imagination. It was there that I discovered the burdensome predicaments that confront children, like conquering kingdoms and saving despairing maidens; vanishing renegades; starring in circuses and traveling to Africa — and all of it within the boundaries of that tree.

There was a woman living on our street, just a few houses down from us. They said she had cancer. That was the first time I ever heard that word. I could see her backyard from my perch, and every day she would spend some time in her garden, watering plants, cutting flowers and often just sitting quietly in the California sunshine. She always had a colorful scarf over her head. I remember quite vividly the first time I saw her remove the scarf, revealing her baldness.

I had no knowledge of chemotherapy, and so the sight of a lady with no hair was both intriguing and confusing for me. I was disturbed by the incongruity of a seemingly healthy woman in her garden, and the physical peculiarity of a female head with no hair, along with this mysterious illness I'd heard about called "cancer."

Somehow, the separateness I felt high up in my treehouse made it possible for me to take in the mysteries of life that played out below, and to contemplate the wonders and glories and calamities that were routinely revealed to my inexperienced eyes, so eager to soak it all in. I was beginning to form perceptions and positions and prejudices —a sure sign of growing up.

It took a few more years for me to understand cancer as a disease that did more than take our hair away. But for most of my life, cancer has been nothing more than a distant disorder and something that has always been out of reach, down there in an open field and far away from my own back yard.

Today, 60 years after my adolescent adventures in the mulberry tree, I, too, am a person with cancer. And it seems to me that most of the world sees cancer from a distant point of view. After all, most of the world doesn't have cancer. As a male breast cancer survivor, I can understand how a person might feel isolated or even small down here, well below the tree line of health and wellness. I can understand that our desire to live our lives free from pain or suffering often can seem just out of reach, teasing us from the branches just over our heads.

And it seems to me that it's this separation in our viewpoint that can make cancer feel like a detached adversary — something out-of-body that is always in conflict with our healthy selves. Just like anyone else with breast cancer, I don't want these errant cancer cells in my body, but I wonder sometimes how something created in my own body can be seen as distant invaders, so far away, rather than uninvited visitors, right here in my own home.

The difference is subtle, and it's all a matter of our perspective of course. There is no exclusive or right way to view our cancer, just as there is no sure way to cure it.

But in my case, I have decided to come down from my mulberry tree to get a closer look at my disease, to meet it head-on each day, close-up and personal, until I can firmly and permanently kick it out of my house.

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