‘It’s déjà vu all over again’

I don’t dwell on it.

I don’t care to be defined by the disease. I do not claim it as my own. I declined to put a pink ribbon magnet on my car. I wear my screaming pink “Survivor” T-shirt from the Komen walk only when everything else is in the wash.

Still, I can’t forget that I had breast cancer. The reminders are as close as the scars I bear, and the tiny tattoo on my sternum that helped  the radiation techs calibrate precisely where to blast me. They are as close as the pill bottle on my nightstand that contains the unpleasant maintenance meds I have to take when I awake each morning.

And now it’s back.  As the late Yogi Berra famously misspoke, “It’s déjà vu all over again.”

Actually, that cancer is not back, which is a blessing; the oncologist tells me that if it shows up again, the end will be in sight. No, it’s a new and different breast cancer: ductal, not lobular; early stages, not late. The refrain has changed, but the song remains the same.

Frankly, I’m annoyed. It’s too soon: almost exactly two years after my first diagnosis. I haven’t had a chance to recover fully. My friends, a wonderful, generous, giving group who provided a life-saving support system, haven’t had a chance to recover fully.  I have work to do. But life is indifferent to our schedules.

This time is easier, in that I know what to expect, like an ex-con returning to the pen. My medical team, one of the best in the world, is already in place. The treatment should be simpler and less debilitating. If the cancer has not spread, I can avoid chemo; if it has spread, the chemo won’t be as bad as last time. If I undergo the surgery – a “simple bilateral mastectomy” – radiation treatment will not be necessary.

More importantly, I have already been on the knife’s edge between life and death. I have felt the reassuring presence of Christ as I hovered on the verge of unconsciousness. I know that there is more than this world, that there is nothing to fear.

That doesn’t mean I’m going to go without a fight. I have promises to keep. I have things I need to do, and plans I intend to see through.

And so I try to maintain a balance between the tug of this world and the promise of the next, doing what I can in the here and now, but aware that my life here may end at any time. It’s a useful reminder: isn’t that how Christians are supposed to live every day?

– Sarah Bryan Miller

I have always loved this hymn. The words are from the 5th century, by Synesius of Cyrene; the translation was made by Allen William Chatfield in 1875. The tune, “Southwell”, is number 641 in The Hymnal 1982; Benjamin Britten made memorable use of it in his church opera “Noyes Fludde.”

Lord Jesus, think on me,
and purge away my sin;
from harmful passions set me free,
and make me pure within.

Lord Jesus, think on me,
with care and woe oppressed;
let me thy loving servant be,
and taste thy promised rest.

Lord Jesus, think on me,
nor let me go astray;
through darkness and perplexity
point thou the heavenly way.

Lord Jesus, think on me,
that, when the flood is passed,
I may the eternal brightness see,
and share thy joy at last.

Lord Jesus, think on me,
that I may sing above
to Father, Holy Ghost and thee
the songs of praise and love.

 

 

Nuked

I’m nearly through the third and final stage of my cancer treatment. Five mornings each week I leave the house at a little past 7, drive to the hospital, and get nuked.

Radiation oncology is just down the hall from the chemotherapy infusion center, but the two are very different; instead of sitting for hours with an IV drip, I’m in and out in less than 20 minutes.

The machine that zaps me is the medical equivalent of a combination fax-phone-printer: It takes X-rays, sends the images to the technicians, and then delivers a dose of carefully calibrated, carefully aimed radiation to my breast.

I receive it while lying on a hard narrow board, my head on a sort of padded doughnut, my arms above my head in special frames. My job is to lie very still, something that’s easier if I don’t think about it.

The radiation burns my skin and makes me tired. If I’d had it first I’d have groused about the side effects, but my attitudes about what’s difficult have changed considerably since chemo.

In a matter of days it will all be over. Meanwhile, thin fine hair like an infant’s is sprouting atop my head, giving me hope that I’ll soon have enough to comb ; the beginnings of eyebrows have appeared, and my eyelashes are almost back to normal.

“This time next year, it will just be a bad memory,” say well-meaning acquaintances. Perhaps, but the cancer has changed me forever,  physically,  spiritually, and emotionally. I will never take my life and abilities for granted again, nor the lives of those around me. This life is a great gift from God. I intend to use it wisely.

– Sarah Bryan Miller

The Komen

Approximately 64,000 people converged on downtown St. Louis early Saturday morning for the Komen. 4,905 of us were breast cancer survivors or current patients.

The Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure is the world’s largest fundraising event for breast cancer research;  St. Louis boasts the biggest Komen race in the United States. Every aspect of it is superbly organized; everyone I saw there –  working,  or volunteering,  or or participating –  seemed happy to be a part of it.

The Race had a holiday feel to it. Tents with vendors lined the park. Sponsors handed out freebies, all in pink: tote bags, fans, foam Energizer bunny ears. Survivors got screaming-pink shirts and caps; everyone else had a generic white-with-pink-trim or team shirt.

I met my friend Peggy at the steps of Christ Church Cathedral, just north of Race HQ, for “Pray for the Cure,”  a brief but meaningful interfaith service which was introduced by a long-term survivor,  led by the Dean (who offered an apt bidding prayer),  with contributions from a rabbi (her homily was apropos and funny),  and an imam (who prayed in both Arabic and English).

Peggy is about nine months ahead of me in this process, and her recovery,  advice, and good spirits have been an inspiration to me. So is the thickness of her hair, which gives me hope that my baby fuzz will soon develop into something more.

I was chosen in a drawing to ride the course in one of five pedicabs. Thanks to our friendly volunteer pedaler,  Tom,  we rode the course in style. We gasped when we came over a rise and saw the boulevard packed with people, a solid mass of pink, white and touches of red,  stretching as far as we could see.

It was a crowd that transcended age,  gender,  race and class. Some were walking in memory of a friend or family member. Some celebrated a woman who beat the cancer. Some were survivors. They moved in time to the music – live and recorded –   provided along the route,  and accepted cups of water proffered by platoons of volunteers.

The Komen’s logo is an image of a pink ribbon that resembles a runner,  positioned in front of the word “race.”  It appeared all along the route, and all along the route I misread it as “Grace for the Cure.”

Or perhaps it wasn’t a misreading after all. There was surely grace in the presence of all those participants,  all those volunteers;  there was grace in the service at the Cathedral,  and grace in the outpourings of loving kindness we received.

There is grace every step of the way in every part of this race: in the nurses and doctors who work to heal us, in the friends and family who care for us; there is grace in those who devote their careers to searching for causes and cures. “Grace for the Cure”  is as necessary as medicine.

– Sarah Bryan Miller

The diagnosis

I shall not die, but live,
and declare the works of the LORD.

– Psalm 118:17

I’m not dead yet.
– Monty Python and the Holy Grail

Ten days ago I went to a specialist for what my doctors and I thought was a breast abscess. We were mistaken.

Soon after, it was confirmed that I have inflammatory carcinoma, a rare and aggressive breast cancer.

In the last week I’ve had numerous consultations and procedures; I’ve met new doctors and learned a new vocabulary. This coming week I’ll begin chemotherapy.

It’s been a difficult thing to grasp (understatement alert), and I find myself dissolving into tears over small realizations of a wholly changed world. I go to bed feeling at peace with it, and awaken sobbing at 2 a.m.

The hardest part has been telling people about my diagnosis, particularly those I care about the most: my children and father, my dear friends and colleagues.

The wonderful part has been the reaction, both from friends and from people I hardly know: unexpected kindness from medical professionals, and an overwhelming response from friends and acquaintances: offers of rides, of food, of reading matter (these are people who know me well), of a sympathetic ear, of prayer.

GPN may take a slightly different turn, as my experiences inform my writing; I will keep you apprised of what happens, but I promise that this will not become simply a cancer blog. I invite both present and new contributors to help out with additional meditations on the things that inspire you.

I trust that Jesus is walking with me down this road; I invite you to walk along, too. Most of all, whatever happens, I ask for your prayers for healing, for grace, for acceptance, for peace.

– Sarah Bryan Miller