On October 4 of this year my wife, Joyce, was diagnosed with breast cancer. This came as a cruel shock to both of us—she’s only 29, and women in her age range only constitute about two percent of all breast cancer cases. As unlucky as the diagnosis made us feel, in another way we were fortunate. Though women in their 20s and 30s are unlikely to be breast cancer victims, they often have worse prognoses than older women. This is primarily because younger women don’t believe the disease can affect them, are less concerned if they do find a lump, and are thus slow to act if something seems awry. Much to Joyce’s credit, as well as that of her doctor, she was quick to have more tests done on something both presumed would turn out to be benign. This is not to say that women in their mid to late 20s should be scheduling yearly mammograms for themselves—their breast tissue is likely too dense for a scan to spot much of anything until it’s a palpable lump anyway—but it is important to note that this is not just a disease afflicting older women, and it’s much better to be safe than sorry when there is a reason to think one’s health might be in jeopardy.
The day of the diagnosis, as well as the next two days following it, were pretty jarring emotionally. My immediate reaction was that I needed to be strong for Joyce, which was a great idea on paper, but quickly dissolved when I began crying next to her on the couch the first evening. Her response to the news was initially anger; “why me?” is an understandable question to ask, though you can’t expect any good answers to be directly forthcoming. The other emotion I think both of us experienced was fear. The word “cancer” can cast a pall over a room. There’s an underlying enormity to it which causes the mind to race from one worst-case scenario to the next. In my case, the fear was suppressed a great deal after meeting with Joyce’s team doctors who are currently providing her treatment. This was not because they assured us we had nothing to worry about—medical professionals don’t give that sort of advice to people in these situations anyway—but rather because they replaced the abstract and amorphous fear that is “cancer” with an outline of concrete steps that would be taken to address the problem. Clichés exist because they have a kernel of truth, but taking things one day at a time can be much healthier from a psychological standpoint than dwelling on the unknowable future.
At times humor even started to break in to our dealings with the disease. For example, my wife is a big football fan, and both of us had previously been impressed with the lengths the NFL went to publicly demonstrate their support of women with breast cancer in the month of October. However, when you personally are diagnosed with the disease, during breast cancer awareness month itself, you consider yourself sufficiently aware without seeing sweaty, 300 pound linemen wiping themselves off with pink towels that look like they belong in the linen closet at Barbie’s Malibu beach house. As Joyce commented (and I’m simultaneously paraphrasing and cleaning up the language), “I just want to see Tom Brady get hit without having to look at a bunch of pink crap that reminds me of my boobs.” Both of us know that seeing Brady makes many women more aware of their chests and other personal regions than they are otherwise, though not necessarily for health reasons. Joyce, being a Colts fan, is not similarly affected, however.
The thing which strikes me the most about our short and ongoing experience with breast cancer is how many people you confide in have family members or close friends who were also afflicted with the disease. Numbers, even large numbers, can be too impersonal to have much impact on one’s attitudes, but when you start putting faces and personalities on those statistics they get pretty real, pretty fast. The good news, of course, is that many of these stories and experiences—while arduous--end in survival, and Joyce’s cancer is of the sort that responds well to treatment. The reach of the disease throughout our society, as well as humanity’s general ability to be kind to those in need (and this is coming from someone who trends towards the cynical end of the spectrum), means that Joyce and I have been pleasantly overwhelmed with well wishes and generous offers of support from those closest to us and people we’ve just met. It reminds me that if bad things, even awful things, didn’t happen from time to time, mankind’s nobler qualities like charity and empathy would burn a lot less brilliantly. It may sound like pabulum, but it’s pabulum I believe in, and it keeps me looking on the bright side of things. And when you get right down to it, that’s the best option you’ve got sometimes.