In support of Write Pink! Survivor week, the lovely Diane is sharing her (and her sisters) story with us. Give her a round of applause -- in the form of heavy comment-love. (Your comment will enter you in a giveaway -- $50 to The Vintage Pearl!) Diane is currently in between blogs while she works on her Pink Pockets Project. You can read some of her guest posts at the NY Times Motherlode
Remission Is Not A Four-Letter Word
“Praise Jebus!” as Homer Simpson says, it’s almost November and we will finally get a reprieve from
the ubiquitous pink ribbon that confronts us at every turn, exhorting us to ‘grab a feel so cancer can’t
steal’ or however that saying goes. We cannot get away from the symbol designed to raise money and
awareness about breast cancer that is recognized every October as National Breast Cancer Awareness
month. Not only do we see it at the grocery store checkout aisle as we are asked to make a small
donation for breast cancer research and treatment organizations, but we see it on our yogurt, granola
bars, cereal, water bottles, and even in that formidable all-male bastion of the NFL on gloves, shoes
and on the backside of the players’ football helmets. It can give even the most compassionate a case of
pink fatigue and a sour stomach that only a dose of Pepto-Bismol can alleviate. That darn pink ribbon is
everywhere – it has completely jumped the shark. At least October is almost over and it can all go away
for another year.
Unless, that is, you are breast cancer survivor like me. I do, of course, count myself as blessed to be
part of the living today, almost two years after my diagnosis, because I know there are many who have
been unsuccessful in their battle with this nasty disease, like my aunt Inta, who died of a breast cancer
recurrence on December 31, 2005. She was only 61. Now, I live with a 24X7 reminder of breast cancer
every time I pick up my young daughters and hug them against the two silicone implants under my
skin. They are fabulous, I must admit – firm, shapely and with enough perk to withstand the coming
onslaught of gravity that will envelop the rest of my body over time – a metaphor I like to think of
my new hopeful outlook on life ‘AC’ – after cancer. While my hyper awareness of pink will never fully
subside, I’d like to think that it has given me a much greater appreciation to be thankful for every day
and not take for granted the dear people in my life or the small luxuries that life affords some days – like
a great cup of coffee or a quiet house.
These days I feel great, despite the wicked hot-flashes that are another nagging reminder of my battle
with Stage 2 invasive breast cancer diagnosed when I was just 39. My twin sister, Denise, heard the
dreaded ‘This is breast cancer’ news when we were only 33. Since we have both tested positive for the
BRAC1 genetic mutation (Denise has also tested positive for the BRAC2 mutation), I went ahead with
a bilateral mastectomy with reconstruction followed by 6 months of chemo to eradicate any evil stray
cancer cells that might be wandering my body looking for a new place to roost. The thing about breast
cancer – especially those fortunate enough to find it early through either a mammogram or a self-exam
(like I did), is that you don’t feel sick when you are told you have cancer. I recall a very sweet email from
my brother-in-law Paul on the heels of my bad news. He wrote ‘Basically, I love you and don’t want
you to be sick’. This was the message from the man that walked my sister through surgery, chemo, and
radiation only a few years before. He knew what was coming for me. Sick? I didn’t feel sick – not until
the doctors started messing with me, that is.
Whilst you are in the great care of doctors and the watchful care of loved ones as a cancer patient,
making the transformation to cancer survivor is another thing altogether. People would inquire
hesitantly about how you are feeling and what is your prognosis. “Are you in remission?” they would
ask? I wasn’t sure how to respond when I first heard this query. I always thought the term remission
was used for cancers like leukemia that could never be cured – just kept at bay until the time when
your immune system could no longer battle or your were out of pharmacological solutions. Am I
in remission? No, by God, I’m great. The cancer is gone. At least, I pray the chemo got it all. Cancer
Treatments, I have come to find, offer little by way of guarantees, as in life, No, I didn’t want to use the
word remission when responding to my future – that the cancer is not really gone, just in hiding. I want
to use the most beautiful four-letter word there is – cure.
Remission means to me the possibility that the cancer can come and will come back. I even went so far
as to look it up on the wealth of information perpetually at our fingertips – the internet. According to
the National Cancer Institute’s (www.cancer.gov) online dictionary, remission is defined this way:
A decrease in or disappearance of signs and symptoms of cancer. In partial remission, some, but not all, signs and symptoms of cancer have disappeared. In complete remission, all signs and symptoms of cancer have disappeared, although cancer still may be in the body.
Moreover, when I went further to see what About.com had to say on this subject at
A period of time during which symptoms of a disease are reduced (partial) or undetectable (complete). In the case of breast cancer, remission means that tests and imaging do not show evidence of the cancer, and that a doctor cannot see signs of the cancer during a clinical exam.
It does not mean the same thing as cure because if even one cancer cell is still in your body, the small possibility exists that the cancer may return.
Gads, that’s not very comforting. On the day of my last chemo infusion at Texas Oncology, my nurse
cautioned my about staying diligent in follow-up care with a terrible story about his cousin’s brain tumor
following a bout with breast cancer. You can’t buy this kind of motivational wisdom.
When you become a cancer survivor, you walk a very fine line that divides hypochondria and medical
diligence. Is this back pain a sign that my cancer has metastasized to my bones or does it mean I need
a new mattress or better shoes or a smaller purse? Is this fatigue I’m feeling a symptom of low blood
cell counts brought on by leukemia or is it because I have four busy kids and I’ve over committed with
the PTA? On the other hand, if you are like most moms I know, you blow off every ache and pain until
it’s too far gone. When cancer recurrence comes knocking, one knows that time is even more of the
essence in remediation.
I don’t want to live the rest of my life – however long that may be - running to the doctor for every
mysterious symptom that is in all likelihood just the result of aging. It’s like when you bring your first
baby home from the hospital – you read Dr. Spock like it’s the bible and agonize over every sniffle and
whimper. “My God, this fever is the latest strain of avian flu!” Most times it isn’t. But sometimes it is.
I am encouraged by so many survivor stories – we hear most of them in October – and while it may be
getting tedious to some, they are a spark of life for me, my twin sister and so many of my pink sisters.
I recently learned of that Julie Clark – founder of the Baby Einstein Company – has battled with breast
cancer and has faced a recurrence that is what was described as Stage 4, yet under control with medical
treatment. Julie Clark will never know me – but I know Julie’s wonderful work all too well, as my last
child Caroline adored all of the music and images that were featured in the Baby Einstein DVDs. Julie
Clark shares some wisdom about speaking to children about cancer in ‘You are the Best Medicine’
and I am certain that her story can be of great encouragement to adults and children alike.
Although the pink ribbon may initiate the eye-rolling and gag reflex of some, everyone knows someone who has been affected by breast cancer. What if Susan G. Komen had gotten thyroid instead of breast cancer?
While we as yet cannot say that we are cured of our disease, survivors like Julie Clark can use their time in remission to provide something we can all live with - another beautiful four-letter word - hope.
You can keep up with all that Diane does, and wherever she is posting these days on Twitter.
Don't forget all comments on today's post, and yesterday's post will be entered to win a gift certificate to The Vintage Pearl.
Do you know a survivor you would like to pay tribute to? Write a post, and link it up to the Bigger Picture Moment Thursday at Sarah's and you will gain 3 extra entries to the giveaway, and more importantly, spread HOPE.
We're also still recruiting for the Army of Women, our goal is 30, we're at 12, what number will you be?