I’ve Got Cancer and I’m OK.
Some of you know that seven years ago I was diagnosed with breast cancer – two different types, one in each breast. One bilateral mastectomy later, I was headed toward recovery. For five years I stayed on the current drug of choice to keep that cancer under control. After five years, current thought was not to stay on that drug any longer, so I didn’t. Fast forward two years and all is fine until exactly one month ago from today I noticed a lump. In my breast.
I gave it day to be scar tissue and then got myself a mammogram which led to a biopsy that same day which led to a phone call the next morning telling me my cancer had returned.
Within 48 hours I had every scan, MRI, X-ray, pee-in-the-cup, draw the blood test one can have and the next day was at a table surrounded by 7 doctors, all men.
Two were from my first go around, five were new. All were saying “What the hell?”
“This is truly rare,” one declared. “We’ve been on the phone with other specialists and they agree, this is rare,” another chimed in.
OK. I got it. This is rare. What’s not rare is my type of cancer. What is rare is the reoccurrence.
I joined the conversation: “Let’s move on. What’s the cure?”
Well, they had that answer. The cure is aggressive chemotherapy followed by aggressive radiation/chemotherapy followed by more chemotherapy. You see, I’m one of the lucky ones – this is not metastatic, is still localized, and is still that cancer called “curable.” So, you attack hard.
Then they mentioned that this cancer is very slow growing, not aggressive. Brad – dear husband – groaned and said, “You shouldn’t have mentioned that.”
I perked up: “Well, if it’s slow growing and not aggressive, next week I have four keynotes in four different states. Don’t you think I could do those first before we start this?”
Seven men each shook his head no. I nodded yes. “Slow growing. Not aggressive,” I repeated. Finally, one asked Brad, “Are we winning this one?” Brad said, “Probably not.”
And so that next week, off I went to Denver, NYC, Pittsburg, and Minneapolis. On Monday, October 23, at the end of my time with the 300 teachers at the Minnesota Council Teachers of English Fall Conference, I told them that the next day I would be receiving a port and starting chemo for a reoccurrence of breast cancer and I wanted them to know that spending that day with them was the best shot of get-well-soon I could ever receive. I told this huge group I wasn’t yet ready to post this online and asked them to please not have any social media chatter. And there wasn’t. Not one tweet. I LOVE teachers.
The next day off I went to have a port inserted and that afternoon, Tuesday, October 24, I started day 1 of chemo.
My oncologist does things a bit differently than most. He gives slightly smaller doses of chemo for longer periods of time (over several days at a time) to be more humane on the body. He draws blood more often to watch carefully how white blood cells and red blood cells and platelets are doing and reacts immediately as they start to fall. And he or one of his associates sees me every day. Every day. Weekends included.
And as he sees me, he always starts by asking the most direct question, “How are you feeling today?” With that he’s wondering how I’m feeling physically, but also mentally and emotionally. “How are you feeling today?” From there, we chat. Are there questions I have? Is there something bothering me we should figure out? What am I doing for fun when I get home? Yes, a glass of wine will be ok, a small one. No, a martini is not ok.
We talk. Doctor to patient, person to person. We get to what sometimes causes tears; we linger over what’s most concerning; we push on to what makes us laugh. We end, always, with “You have got this. You’ll be just fine.”
Our chats make me think of how he has taken this huge impersonal world of medicine and made it intensely personal. Intimate. As he leaves, I often wonder how we do that in education. I wonder how we give this time that he gives me to each kid we see each day. I think of the power of the reading conference, the writing conference, the stand-in-the-hallway-and-say-hi moment. I think about asking a kid “How’s that book going? What are you thinking about today? What questions do you have? Is there something bothering you with this essay/this book/this assignment/this moment that we should figure out?” I think about promising a kid “You have got this. You’ll be just fine.” I think he’s teaching me a lot about teaching.
And so, folks, I wanted you to know I’m on a side trip right now. I’m sporting a new do that will last for a while. I feel great – again a more humane way of doing chemo. Bob and I are using this time to get a lot of writing done. Bob’s being Bob – helping me get through this with his ready wit. We’ll be doing more FB Live events during this time, and I’ll be blogging about this journey on my blog site – as soon as I remember the password to my blog site.
Meredith, Baker, and Brad are, as always, my lighthouses, keeping things bright and showing me the way. And you, dear teachers, are my inspiration. I know so many of you walk into a classroom each day carrying the burden of this disease and you stand there and teach. You teach. Your dedication is carrying me forward. Thank you.
So, I’ve got cancer, and I’m ok. I promise.
P.S. Here I am, with a buzz cut so I don’t have to keep watching hair fall out. And with the last batch of the thousands of backpacks that arrived – these from kids in Florida. And the other photo with Stephen who has done my hair forever and best friend Suzanne who has stood by me for everything!