When Cancer Steals

It seems, every now and then I accept that life is a force outside my control, playing out as intended, insisting I go with the flow, all of it, whether I like it or not.
Sometimes, when I find myself pushed along the fast track of husband, two growing boys, school, holidays, finances, Lego’s everywhere, turkeys to cook, gifts to purchase…days pass.  There’s contentment.  A feeling that perhaps life is how it should be.  All my years and decisions have led to these moments and I forget something is amiss.
Then some unexpected memory, or casual sighting of something familiar reminds me…and I’m pissed.
Often, it’s the toll cancer places on all of us, that plays out in my thoughts, but this Thanksgiving, in particular, I saw what it took from my children.  
Breast cancer stole their grandmother.  
It wrenched an unconditional love right out of their lives, before it ever had a chance to grace their world and when I lose myself in ordinary days, it seems almost acceptable.  Something that sucks happened, and no one could stop it.  It just is.  Shoulders shrug.  What can we do?  Cancer came, collected its victim, and left a gigantic, jagged hole in more lives than I even knew at the time.
Over the years, I’ve considered how nice it would be if my boys had their grandmother, but it’s really just an idea, a sweet dream based on distant recollections of my mother with my nieces and nephews.  There’s the game I play of “if only she were here, she would be… and she would do…”
But, I can’t really know for sure.  I imagine how my mom, now in her 70’s, would act.  I catch glimpses of her in some stylish, older lady I may spot when out and about.  Something about her clothes, her haircut, or attitude ignites a sense of deja vu and inexplicably, I’m drawn to her, wanting in that instant to become her friend.  Maybe, if I look at her long enough, she’ll instinctively know I’m in need and step up, but no doubt she has her own family, so I turn away.  Or maybe, I look away to squelch my rising emotion, escaping sadness just in the nick of time, avoiding it before it catches me.
I couldn’t turn away on Thanksgiving day when I found myself surrounded by a slightly different holiday crowd than past years.  My cousin’s in-laws were in attendance, her septuagenarian mother-in-law drew us all in.  She took to my sons as if they were her own grandchildren.  Playing games, giving gifts, handing out hugs and compliments to one and all, even to my husband and me.  Like my mother would, I think.  As if my boys were the most special boys on the planet, because I know to my mom, they would be.  
And on that day, I not only felt my sons’ loss, I saw it, because here, in the form of someone else’s grandma, it was personified and at the end of the day, we had to leave.  We had to go back home without this presence, without this wondrous addition to our lives.
It was clear to me then, how much cancer stole from us when it took my mother, beyond my loss, or my father’s, but the loss of something immeasurable and yet to come.
How do I put a price on the void in my children’s lives?  On something as intangible as the influence of one who loves you?  My boys don’t even know they’re missing out.  They can’t want for something they’ve never known, but I can want it for them and be angry they don’t have it.
I know people die.  People lose family members everyday.  It’s life, I get it, but in my small circle of friends, the only grandmas missing, are the ones taken prematurely by breast cancer…and that, is downright infuriating.
How are we supposed to live with that?  The world needs grandmothers.
The answer, I suppose, is what it always is in our breast cancer community.
Research, research and more research until a cure or prevention stops cancer from stealing grandmothers…and everybody else.  


I want to start by saying I’m thankful I’m not spending countless hours receiving chemotherapy in an infusion room or suffering its ill effects.  Believe me, I know how lucky I am to have walked away with “only” a bilateral mastectomy with Tamoxifen everyday.  I know it easily could have been worse and I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s exactly where I find myself one day after all… You know, because of the whole No Cure thing.

Anyway, I’m not complaining.  Not by a long shot, but this post is about a new dilemma I’m faced with simply because, like it or not, breast cancer is a big part of my day.  Not in the same way those enduring treatment see it, or when I was freshly diagnosed, but it’s there all the same.

I blog about it.

I still see my oncologist and breast surgeon every four months and I kind of like it.

I still attend a support group.

I check in daily with our online breast cancer community and care about the people I’ve virtually met there.

And just a few minutes ago, I found myself on the phone scheduling nipple tattoos, (Who says that?) looking forward to yet another fun time with my plastic surgeon.  And by the way, don’t you think calling on a plastic surgeon to tattoo anything is a little beneath them?  It seems like something an assistant should do, maybe an intern, leaving the surgeon free to focus on more interesting and challenging work…face lifts, nose jobs, reconstruction.  But…I digress.

Saying I’m finished with breast cancer because my expanders are out and my implants in, is quite the understatement.  It never ends.  I used to think there was a finish line, but I’m no longer sure.

So, with all this cancer stuff in my everyday life, I’m treading carefully on a new friendship with someone who has no idea what happened.  How do I tell?  Or do I?  It almost feels deceitful not to, in a way.  As if I’m leaving out a large piece of who I am these days.  But, how do you approach the subject with someone who doesn’t have a clue?

And maybe the bigger question is, why is it such a secret?

My story is by no means secret.  I’ll discuss it with anyone who’ll listen.  I’ll write about it. I’ve even spoken to the occasional reporter and let them write about it, with my last name and town included.  So, why is it so hard to own up with someone who’s new to the party?

Perhaps it has to do with protecting my young children from words they may not understand, such as cancer.  Not knowing who might say what and having it get to my boys before I’m ready or believe they’re ready to truly understand what it meant for me to have breast cancer.  It’s a conversation I’ll have with them one day, but on my terms, when I believe it’s time.

I’ve got no problem volunteering the words, “Me too!” in a breast cancer conversation someone else started, allowing me to connect with other knowing, breast cancer women, but when standing alone with nothing but my diagnosis to offer someone who hasn’t lived it, I stumble.

Maybe, it’s fear of the person’s reaction.  Having already been spurned by one so-called friend, why risk it again? Although, I know if they can’t deal, the problem is theirs, not mine.  I still have to admit there’s a lingering stigma associated with the disease and I’m suffering from it.  Otherwise, why would I care what people think?  But, if they suddenly see me as a sick person, I have to care.  How someone views my health is very personal.

How can something I deal with so publicly, still feel so private?

I keep going over this in my head.  I’m not looking to gain support or understanding or anything by telling.  I’m not asking for anything.  I just want to share something that matters a whole lot to me, an experience I had that changed what I deem valuable in my life.

How do I not share that with a friend, but still…I hesitate.  

There’s a great discussion on my Facebook page about this topic.  It seems many of us find ourselves in this or similar situations with no clear answer.  I guess telling someone new is like a leap of faith.  We just let go, jump in and hope for the best.

If the topic doesn’t come up, how do you tell a new friend you have breast cancer or do you?

For My Friend

What’s in the small tin box with flowers on it, a small boy might ask.  

It can’t possibly be all that remains of my gorgeous dog, would be my answer.

Such a small box can’t contain the life force I still feel with every glimpse of his face in some innocent photograph. His spirit, too large to be harnessed in a confined space, too anxious to be free.

I see him eager, excited to play, content to lay in the sun or romp in deep snow.  I feel his big snout pushing its way under my hand, searching for pets.  And then I’m sad again, but it goes beyond missing my friend.  There’s a sense of guilt that somehow I let him down.  Did we let him go too soon?  We had promised to take care of him.

I tell myself he had a good life.  When others would have given up on a strong-willed, nervous, fiercely protective German Shepherd, we dug in, found the right trainer and taught him who was boss.  He had to know we were in charge.  The responsibility was ours, to look after him, not the other way around.  He learned to trust in us, to follow our commands.  He learned to let his guard down and just be.  It took quite a while, but we got there.

After experiencing the hills and valleys of his lifetime together it makes sense to be heartbroken at its end.  To feel his presence when getting the mail or turning out the lights at night.  I still look for him, and try to stop myself from wallowing, because after all, I think, it’s not cancer.  He was an old dog who lived a good life.

Like that matters.

Like that doesn’t make him worthy of the emotion, but of course, it does.  Cancer intrudes on everything.  Even my right to mourn my pet.

He was still my friend.  Ready with an open ear and a giving paw, never judging, never asking for anything more than a walk or a crunchy biscuit in return.  He was happy just sharing my space and all was right in my world when I came home to a wagging tail.

As thoughts of chasing tennis balls faded into long ago memory, and walking to the kitchen too much effort, when he no longer raised his head for ear scratches or treats or at the sound of his leash, when he was sick more than he wasn’t and when he looked at us with questioning eyes, we knew, as promised.  We would take care of him.

Ours would be the last faces he’d see as he slowly, peacefully drifted off to sleep and hopefully felt some comfort. As ours were the faces he spied through a cage in a shelter more than eleven years ago.  Nose to nose, looking at each other, wondering would we be the ones to give him a home?

Maybe, as my husband stood away from the cage that day and said, “I like this one,” the biggest dog in the shelter, thought the same about us.  Maybe, he thought it was his lucky day and I hope, as he closed his eyes that last time, he knew how much he was loved, how much joy and inspiration he brought to our lives and how very much he’ll be missed.

As I look at my blog everyday, its photos and title and remember the reason for its name, I hope Goliath, somehow knows how very far his furry paw did reach.  Further than any of us could ever guess.


Thank you, Nancy Brinker.  For more than you know.

For providing the inspiration I needed to get blogging again when all I wanted to do was sit on the couch and mourn the loss of my beautiful dog.  When the thought of writing about breast cancer was beyond me.
For igniting a spark among my tired, depleted emotions.
For reminding me why my blog exists.  Why quiet bloggers everywhere with something to say — matter.  We are not simply typing away in lonely, empty rooms for the sake of something to do.  Many of us were pushed into blogging by the sheer, ugly fact of having cancer or by the sad, frustration endured with the growing number of people we’ve lost to it.
In my case — both.
So, Nancy Brinker, when people who are “scared to death” as your sister was, or like you, have lost someone or are dealing with their own breast cancer, women and men whose dream it is to realize the eradication of breast cancer, have their questions equated to words of “grumblers” and their concerns tossed aside as some lint plucked from a fancy pink jacket, you inspire us to write.  For that is all we can do.  We, the Grumblers.  We can ban together as one and as my friend, Jody, says, “Roar.”

Because, here’s the thing.  No one is denying the good work Komen has done over the years.  Especially me.  I’ve personally seen the benefits of breast cancer awareness after my mother fought her disease in quiet secret and when I was diagnosed years later.  I could choose to keep my mouth closed and solider on, as she had or use my words to describe the reality of the disease; it’s various forms, it’s ability to return no matter one’s prognosis or treatment.  I was able to find empathetic support, because the disease was no longer in the shadows.
And that is a direct result of the pink movement bringing breast cancer education to the masses, making it acceptable to say it’s name, Breast Cancer, in most homes around the world, but not all, not yet.  
So, I actually agree with you when you say “There won’t be enough pink until the fight against this disease is won.”  People are still dying.  Everyday.  Nearly 40,000 people in the United States alone will die this year, and it’s not because someone didn’t wear a pink tee shirt.  It’s not because someone didn’t purchase enough pink Tic Tacs or donate to yet another fundraiser.  It may not be because someone didn’t get a mammogram early enough.
Forty thousand people will die because we don’t know how to prevent metastatic breast cancer.
Because, in simple terms, we don’t know how to prevent normal cells from becoming malignant.
Maybe, if the bulk of donated dollars were given to research, we’d be more hopeful, but that is not the case.  Not when Komen for the Cure appropriates approximately 19% to research, along with a myriad of other organizations raising money “for the cure,” but actually only raising enough to sell additional cute shirts and pink rubber bracelets adorned with catchy phrases.
What an opportunity you have, Nancy Brinker.  To stand up in front of the millions working so hard for the cause and announce Komen has fulfilled their goal of raising awareness, and while it won’t be forgotten, fewer dollars will be allocated.  Stand up and declare it’s time for Komen to refocus their efforts where it’s needed most — research, because without that, breast cancer will never be cured.
Komen has the power to fund the most promising work, the opportunity to further incredible advancements.  Komen can be on the cutting edge of the breast cancer cure.
And isn’t that really what you promised your sister so long ago?  Back, when you yourself were grumbling about the way the disease was handled.  How can you fulfill your promise to end breast cancer without prioritizing research?
Please don’t disrespect us for questioning the status quo.  In the end, we all want the same thing.  A clear path to a future without breast cancer.  One where awareness campaigns are gone for good.  

We heard you.  Do you hear us?