Tag Archives: breast cancer

What Defines You, Me, Jolie?

Denver Pink Socks

“What are you doing with yourself these days?” asks my doctor.  She’s very good at distracting me from what her hands are doing as she examines me.  She weaves in the important questions among questions that have nothing to do with the reasons she’s examining me.

“I’ve written a book,” I say.

“That’s great,” she says, “I’m sure there are a lot of people out there who could benefit from hearing about your experience.”

But my book isn’t about “my experience.”  At least, not the one she means.

“It isn’t about cancer.  I don’t really want to write about that.  There are tons of books out there about breast cancer.”

Her hands stop moving, and she looks at me as if she’s seeing someone she hasn’t quite seen before.  “What’s it about?” she asks.

I give her the blurb I use in my query letters, and she stops again, her eyebrows lifting.  I can tell she’s trying to reconcile this polished woman who has come into her office in business attire for fourteen years with the little girl whose childhood I’ve just let her peek into.

As I watch her face and answer her curious questions, I realize, yet again, how quick most of us are to define the people we meet by the one facet we see.

And I thought about that today when I heard the media reaction to the news that Angelina Jolie made the decision to have a preventive mastectomy at the age of 37 with no sign of cancer looming.  One news anchor even made the comment that, up to now, we’ve known Angelina as the strikingly beautiful actress and wife of Brad Pitt who has adopted children from third world countries.  But now?  For the moment at least, she has become the spokesperson for young women who face cancer—one whose beautiful breasts have been replaced by implants at the hands of the best reconstructive surgeon available.

And still we can only know some facets of this famous woman.  We will not see her as she agonized over the decision.  We will not see her as she woke from surgery to the magnitude of what she has lost.  We will see her only in the aftermath, in the moments when she has carefully thought about how she wants to present this decision to a world where other young women face a similar decision without her considerable resources.

Just this week, the Washington Post ran a story in the Health and Science section about a 26-year-old woman who did have cancer and who opted for the same course of treatment as Jolie—but who has also undergone chemotherapy and radiation.

I admire Jolie for her strength and her decision to put her chances of surviving for her children above her physical beauty.  But I am in awe of this 26-year-old, who shows even greater courage in the face of a much more frightening future.

And as I think of them both, I am reminded of my conversation with my doctor.  The greatest truth for all of us is that no single event, no single circumstance, no single experience defines who we are.

I am reminded of how often I look at another person through the narrow lens of what I know of her and make judgments about her life.  I think of how often, as a society, we lock other people into the narrow view we have of them.  In fact, the issues our country faces are made more complex and unsolvable because we see each other through the narrow focus of our opposition.

Yes, I am a mother, a wife, a teacher, a cancer survivor, a Presbyterian, a writer.  I’m a dog lover, a beach walker, a reader. A skeptic.  A believer.  I believe in creation…and evolution.  I believe that marriage is between a man and a woman…but not just a man and a woman.  I’m a liberal…who loves my conservative friends and family members…but who doesn’t always care for liberal politicians.

All of these things and others make me who I am—a unique person in this time and space—a person who changes just a little every time I have a new experience or meet a new person or see a new facet of an old friend.  But no single thing defines me—not motherhood, not my career, not cancer, not even my faith.  And that is true of all of us.

And that means, as a wise woman once told me, that I have something to teach and something to learn from every person I meet in this world.

So what do you have to teach me and to learn from me?

What Can I Do to Help?

Each spring, the curriculum required a poetry unit to end the year.  Most of my tenth graders groaned every spring until the year I had them write their own poems and choose their favorite for a class anthology.  I think it may have been my best use of copy paper in 30 years of teaching.  On the last block day before exams, I handed out the stapled booklets, and some students eagerly read their poems to the class.  The students proudly autographed one another’s poems, and some asked me to sign their copies.

I wonder now, ten years since the last time I made those anthologies, how many students still have them stuffed in a box of mementos in their parents’ closets.  I gave them lines from famous poems or ideas to get them started, and I always wrote with them, generally throwing most of mine away, though I kept one now and then to use the next year, mostly to show them that while I wasn’t a poet, I wasn’t afraid to try my hand at doing what I asked them to do.  I was always gratified as a teacher when, after hearing mine, they wrote poems that I liked more than my own.

I’ve kept a few of those anthologies.  And one of my own poems.  I remember it now, ten years later—a shadow poem about my alter-ego, the one who danced with confidence, who never worried she would get cancer.

I remember the poem because, at the very moment I wrote it, cancer had already invaded my breast and threatened to spill into the rest of my body.  I just didn’t know it yet.  That following October, I was diagnosed with early Stage 3 cancer.

And I can’t begin to count the number of times in the ten years since then that I’ve been contacted by women who were equally stunned to find themselves or their friends in the same situation.

Today—not by any means for the first time—a friend contacted me to say that her friend, a woman with young children, will be having surgery for breast cancer in the coming days.  “What kind of help can we give her?” she asked.

My mind returned immediately to those tenth graders, who made up a basket of their favorite things—a pink Beanie Baby from a girl whose mother had breast cancer, a book of Far Side cartoons, a copy of one student’s favorite classic movie and another’s favorite book and more—all accompanied by notes explaining their choices.

“Send flowers?” my friend asked.  “She’s not really a flower person.”

Some people did send me flowers.  And I loved them.  But it’s not the flowers I remember.  One friend went with me to choose a wig, and she encouraged me to spend the money to buy the wig I really wanted.  My colleagues and friends created a sign-up list and brought meals to our family twice a week for the eight weeks I was on leave from work.  And ten years later, I still remember my friend’s laugh when I tried on the Marilyn Monroe blonde wig.  I remember the specific meals my colleagues brought.  I remember the friend who offered to vacuum my house and clean the bathrooms, even though I assured her my housecleaner wasn’t the one who was ill.

So what kind of help makes a difference?  Tell your friend that you can’t really know how she’s feeling or what she needs from you.  Maybe it’s space.  Maybe it’s just your presence.  Whatever it is, encourage her to be honest—to let you know if there’s something specific she needs or if she just wants to be left alone.

A true friend is one she can ask to sit beside her while she has chemo to give her husband a break.  A true friend is someone who’ll tell her she’s still beautiful when she has no hair.  A true friend is someone who will take her kids so that she and her husband can have a date night and try to figure out their new normal.  A true friend is one who will reassure her when she says she’s afraid there will never be a day again when her first waking thought isn’t cancer.

So ask her.  Encourage her to be honest.  And then come back to this blog and tell your own stories of what kind of help you gave that came as a blessing at just the right moment.