My Early Encounters With Cancer Vs. My Cancer Life Today


Anticipating a cancer scan, I think back on my early encounters with cancer.

I didn’t know much about cancer before I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2011. What I did know came from watching my maternal grandmother suffer from throat cancer which occurred after she smoked for 60 years. She had to have radiation treatments, and I remember the bright purple lines on her neck that were used to direct the rays of the treatment to the cancerous spot. The purple marks looked ugly and threatening. She ultimately died from the cancer, and I remember I was late to her funeral because my car kept breaking down during the two-hour drive there. That was in 1992.

I was born in 1963, so when “Brian’s Song” debuted as a movie of the week in 1971, I, at age 8, was affected by it. The film was one of the first movies I remember watching about cancer and ultimately death. In it, Brian Piccolo dies of lung cancer while his friend Gale Sayers eases his pain in death. I remember that my parents allowed me to stay up for the end, and after it, I sobbed myself to sleep.

Other information about the disease came from the popular movie “Terms of Endearment,” which came out in 1983 and starred Debra Winger, Shirley McClaine and Jack Nicholson. In this film, Debra Winger gets terminal cancer and passes away at the end. Watching this take on cancer was also threatening and tragic with its horrible, sad ending.

Then, of course, I was versed on cancer from the warning label on cigarettes, which foreshadowed death if someone smoked too many “cigs”. (That’s what my grandma called them.) The wording was “may be hazardous to your health.” And we all knew what that meant.

So when I got cancer, I thought it spelled d-e-a-t-h. I had to rethink everything I knew about cancer, mostly that it put you in the grave.

But, as the tune goes, “I’m still standing.”

Recently, I was in the shower, doing what one does under the spray of warm water – washing. I twisted to wash my back and unexpectedly, I felt an excruciating pain in my right breast, the one where the cancer occurred, not just once, but twice.

A little personal history: as mentioned above, I had breast cancer in 2011. To treat it, I endured dozens of radiation treatments, which, six years later, gave me an angiosarcoma on the same breast. To treat this secondary cancer, the doctors performed latissimus dorsi flap surgery, where they took a muscle from my back and used it to close the wound on my breast where they’d cut out the cancer.

Long story short, I suspected that the cancer had returned a third time.

I quickly called my oncologist, and she made an appointment for me that week.

“Well, I don’t think the cancer has returned,” she said. “If it did, we’d see something like a rash on the breast or feel a lump.”

I heaved a sigh of relief.

“I believe you tore a muscle, but I’m going to do an ultrasound just to be sure.”

And that’s where I am now, waiting for my ultrasound procedure which is a week away. Am I still afraid that the pain in my breast signifies the cancer’s return? Not really. The initial pain when I twisted was so acute that I think the residual pain is from the tender breast tissue.

But before I saw my doctor, I was afraid of the big C and was afraid that it would kill me. This time it would get me. This thinking was derived from all the early learning I experienced about cancer. Cancer was something that killed.

But today it’s not necessarily so.

I thank God for researchers and doctors and nurses who have worked and are working to end cancer.

When this happens, will movies such as “Brian’s Song” and “Terms of Endearment” become melodramas, places where cancer is evil and deadly, not curable, and ultimately harmless?

I hope so.

The ultrasound today went well. As my oncologist expected, there was no sign of cancer.

And yes, I feel like celebrating. I have a frozen Bahama Mama in the bottom of my freezer for occasions such as this. It’s hard to explain but no matter how many times you hear that you’re cancer-free, it still feels like the first time you’ve heard it.

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