Next Sunday, November 5th, will be the 20th anniversary of my mastectomy. Afterward, my surgeon draped her arm over my shoulders and said I was “cured” as she escorted me out of her office on Connecticut Avenue in Washington, D.C.
Each November 5th , I would make a big deal of the anniversary date of my surgery, or my second birthday, as I called it. I went someplace special. Like a superstitious baseball player, I ran through the same ritual when I came to bat. I wrote down what I was grateful for in my journal, contacted friends and family, telling them how much I appreciated their concern and attention when I was in the throes of cancer crazy and then scheduled something I would do all alone.
The first year, I took Amtrak from Union Station in Washington, D.C. to New York City and ambled up Fifth Avenue on a glorious fall day. In Central Park, I ate a hot dog with mustard and sauerkraut and listened to a skinny old guy dressed in a bright blue suit with a vest and spats, who sat on a bench across from me, playing a ukulele and singing songs my mother and I had listened to on the small radio on top of the refrigerator when I was a kid and she cooked supper. Wait till the Sun Shines, Nelly. Over There. Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree with Anyone Else but Me. Filled with nostalgia of my childhood and gratitude for my life, I licked the mustard off my fingers and walked back down Fifth Avenue to Penn Station and back home. I repeated some version of this for the next nine years.
However, when my ten-year anniversary rolled around, I decided I would no longer engage in this superstitious ritual. I no longer needed to hang on to the label of cancer survivor, or replay each detail of the cancer journey as a holy event.
On another glorious fall day, I traveled from my new home in Chapel Hill, North Carolina back to DC for what I called the last celebration. First, I had lunch with Cathy, a nurse who was diagnosed with breast cancer around the same time as I. While I had stage 0—no infiltration, she has stage III. She sat across from me in McCormick & Schmick’s front dinning room, a seafood taco salad front of her. She had lost 30 pounds, intentionally, and looked professional with her soft beige jacket, long green velveteen skirt and government ID hanging around her neck. During radiation treatments she had worn a strawberry blond wig. Rather wild for a woman in a religious order.
“Well, I believe that if I didn’t get breast cancer, I would be still be living in the religious community. It was having cancer that lead me to evaluate where I was and why. It took two years from the first questioning to finally leaving,” Cathy said as she snapped off a piece of the taco shell, and scooped up some beans and fish into her mouth. I wasn’t surprised she left—she always struck me as an independent person—more of a free spirit than a follower who vowed obedience to an organized religion.
“Remember when we talked about whether or not cancer had changed us? You said you were still the same, right?”
“Yeah,” I said, “ I wished I would have become a better person, more caring and polite. But I am the same big mouth from Jersey City. Clumsy and rude.”
Cathy laughed even though she had heard this before.
“Are you happy?” I didn’t know why I asked her—she looked content.
Her eyes widened. “I thought I was going to die.”
Maybe a cancer diagnosis does change you. Not overtly. Some foreign emotion tugs at your gut: an awareness that only rises when it’s important. I didn’t do anything great. I just lived more honestly. Taking responsibility for my own thoughts and actions, I needed less approval from others.
After lunch Cathy went back to work and I headed to the National Cathedral on Wisconsin Avenue.
While my “lesions” were investigated and various treatments were discussed, I frequently made a detour on my way home after work to the Chapel of the Good Shepherd. Small, with seating for seven worshipers, the chapel was tucked away off the courtyard on the crypt level of the cathedral. There I would sit with my fears, always alone. The cool concrete walls, dim lightening, and silence calmed me. I focused on the stature of Christ, a lamb cradled in his arms, his hand burnished smooth by the touch of visitors seeking miracles. I always left infused with strength to face whatever was coming.
This time, when I entered the chapel, I wasn’t alone. To my left, a young woman with long dark hair silently sat with her legs drawn up and her bare feet on the bench, her shoes placed neatly on the floor in front of her. Her dress didn’t classify her as homeless. Her brow was knotted in worry and her cheeks were wet with tears. She didn’t acknowledge me but kept her eyes fixed on the statue of the Good Shepherd. My own mission seemed insignificant in the presence of her agony.
After a few minutes I left. But not before patting the Good Shepherd’s hand. “Thanks for being there when I needed you,” I whispered.
Now approaching my 20th anniversary I know that a “cancer” diagnosis has forced me to appreciate that there are no guarantees in life. I need to take chances. I don’t see any choice but to dive into my dreams.
As I look back on my life that has been rich and challenging, I remember that young woman and wonder what was so awful in her life at that moment. I hope, like me, she went back to the tiny Chapel of the Good Shepherd, her problems resolved. And before she left, she touched the back of Christ’s hand thanking him for being there when she needed comfort and then got on with her life.