Three years ago today I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I remember being slightly nervous/anxious all morning and the early afternoon. And I remember chiding myself for feeling so anxious--that the results would be negative and I'd feel silly, later, for spending so much time fretting about nothing.
Except that I was wrong. It wasn't nothing--it was stage 2 breast cancer in my left breast and DCIS in my right.
April 15 is tax day, but it's always going to be "the day I found out I had cancer." How could it not?
But this morning I also learned that a childhood friend, Tina, passed away yesterday. She had also had breast cancer--diagnosed much earlier than mine. I can't recall the specifics of her own diagnosis--we were friends from music camp when we were teenagers, had drifted apart, but had briefly come together from time to time when our paths crossed--when I came back to California while living in Boston (where Tina was doing a PhD in French literature at UC Berkeley and I was doing my own PhD at Boston University) and then when I was visiting Paris, where she had relocated with her husband. When she found out about my diagnosis through a mutual friend, she sent me a really lovely message--supportive and generous and funny, which sums up many of the wonderful qualities of Tina. She was also driven, smart, and beautiful.
The most lasting memory I'll have of Tina is sipping a kir royale in the Latin Quarter of Paris while listening to a jazz quartet. It sounds like a cliche--one of those Parisian moments that happens in movies. And walking, afterwards, along the Seine with Tina and her husband Renaud, I felt like I was in a movie--that it was a perfect night because of where I was and who I was with. The last time I saw Tina was when she hugged me good-bye at the entrance to the metro by Notre Dame--I have a picture of the two of us, at night, with Notre Dame lit up in the background.
I feel sad. And, I suppose there's also the odd coincidence of learning about her death today. When I found out, last week, that she had come back to SF to seek treatment and that she was, essentially, dying, I felt freaked out--and knew it was a matter of days. But it doesn't really make a difference knowing that someone is going to be passing soon. I suppose it might take some of the blunt shock away, and maybe it helps people prepare themselves. But it still feels shocking. Even knowing that it is going to happen--that it's inevitable--it still surprised me.
There's a built in mechanism that many of us have--a denial mechanism that says we're going to live forever. Sure we'll get older and maybe we'll have injuries or illnesses, but modern medicine is a wonderful thing and you hear stories all the time about the 90 year old who ran a marathon, the 80 year old who climbed Everest, the 94 year old who went back to college and finally got that degree. And you think you'll just keep living your life until...
My cancer diagnosis was like having that mechanism disabled. It was a reminder that people do die. I will die. You will die. The people we love will die. It's a mortality wake up call.
And in the three years since that diagnosis, I've been able to get that mechanism to work again--I've been able, from time to time, to think that maybe I really will live forever--maybe I'll finally decide to go sky diving when I'm in my 70s. Maybe I'll have a second career as a French chef when I'm in my 80s. I've been able to think that maybe my cancer really is gone--that as the clock ticks up to my 5 year mark, maybe I'll really be able to say I'm cured.
But maybe not. Maybe the mechanism, that denial mechanism, is actually permanently broken in me, like a non-digital clock that tells time correctly only twice a day--maybe that's what it's like for me and the rest of the time I know. I know I'm going to die. I just don't know when or how. That's probably one of the scars I have that won't go away. Because I wonder. When I have a weird pain in my abdomen, I wonder if a tumor is growing in my uterus or ovaries. Because when I find myself more tired than usual, I wonder if it's just being middle-aged or if it's a sign that the cancer has come back. Because when I learn that another person has died of breast cancer like my friend Tina, it's a reminder that people still die from this disease.
RIP Tina. I'm glad you aren't in pain anymore. I'm sorry for everyone you left behind who will have a Tina sized hole in their hearts. I'm grateful to have known you and to have my last memory of you be a picture perfect Parisian memory that is happy. Thank you.