Last year at this time, I was diagnosed with DCIS–Ductal Carcinoma In Situ, or Stage 0 Breast Cancer. In addition, I had other pre-cancerific masses in both breasts. After thinking about it for about a second, I decided to undergo bilateral mastectomy rather than subject myself to radiation and the side effects that can follow radiation, including recurrence.
One reason I decided to have my breasts removed was a conversation I had with a woman I met at a local cancer survivor‘s support group. Because what is said at support groups stays at support groups, I will not share which, nor will I share significant details about this particular person. But I have to share some of our interactions, because she greatly impacted my medical decision. Let’s call her Wanda, for lack of anything more creative.
Wanda also had breast cancer. She, too, had caught it in the early stages of onslaught of The Guys In The White Van. Unlike me, however, she decided to go with lumpectomy and radiation. That was six years ago, and everything was fine, until it was not. The cancer had returned. Like most stealthy ninjas, Cancer does not return gently. Cancer does not return softly. Cancer returns with a vengeance. When I met Wanda, she was undergoing clinical trials of an innovative chemotherapy. Not only had Breast Cancer returned to her breasts, The Guys In The White Van had also attacked her liver, and was inching toward other organs in her body. Twice a week she opened her PICC valve to allow the magic drip into her veins that was supposed to seek out and attack the Cancerific ninjas that were roaming freely throughout her lymphatic system. It exhausted her, but she had a young son and no one else, so she continued relentlessly.
In trying to make my decision, I questioned hers. “Why on earth would you choose to keep your breasts if they were Cancerific?” I once asked her. She answered sadly, “The doctors told me my chance of recurrence would be the same as mastectomy, so I chose to keep them.” Silently, I clucked disapprovingly of her choice.
I didn’t understand her decision, and discussed her case with another Cancerific buddy one night. We decided there must be some sort of greater gain for her to remain sick, because we, we discussed haughtily, would do anything to save ourselves for OUR sons. Maybe she liked being sick? Maybe she got some sort of payout from insurance or disability or medicare? Maybe as long as she was sick she got attention she craved and services reserved for ‘really’ sick people? Whatever the reason, we judged her from on high and decided she wasn’t as sick as she said she was. She was like one of the fakers.
Yesterday, I found out from my Cancerific friend that Wanda had succumbed to The Guys In The White Van. The ninjas in her lymphatic system found entry to The Great Switch in her master cylinder and turned it to ‘off.’ She finished her struggle and found purchase with her sister that had passed a year previous. I guess she showed us.
Wanda taught me that my battle is not hers. Perhaps she had a reason for wanting to stay ill. Perhaps she really believed that breast-conserving surgery, radiation and chemotherapy would allow her the chance to see her son reach adulthood. Perhaps it is none of my damned business what she chose to do–her treatment plan is hers, not mine. Just as my treatment plan is mine, and not yours.
I hope I will never meet someone that makes me question whether or not their disease is as bad as it seems. I hope that Wanda’s family will overcome the crushing blow dealt them by The Guys In The White Van. Finally, I hope that I never influence someone the way Wanda influenced me–to make a decision because I did not want the same outcome she had. If I do influence someone, I hope it is because I am a positive influence, not the poster child for ‘Not What To Do When Diagnosed With Cancer.’
G-d rest Wanda’s soul. G-d forgive me for doubting the severity of her illness. G-d bless anyone having to make decisions that could mean one’s demise. Because no one should have to leave their sons motherless. RIP, Wanda. I learned a lot from you.