A breast cancer survivor shares her experiences with the BRCA gene.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

A Survivor's Purpose

I recognized her instantly. The pale, delicate complexion. The carefully wrapped headscarf. The vibrant, magenta hat the completed her outfit. She was easily identifiable. A chemo patient.

I was browsing through the bookstore when I spotted her making a purchase. Something about her demeanor tugged at me to go over and say something encouraging, like, "I've been there. You'll get through it."

But I didn't. What if I offended her by being presumptuous? What if she possessed a reserved, guarded personality that didn't freely bear her soul to others? Who was I, a stranger, to approach her and delve into her personal life? Instead, I stood silently in the background, while eavesdropping at the same time.

"How are you today?" asked the saleswoman, as she rung up the purchase and placed it in a bag.

The lady with the magenta hat shook her head forcefully. "Not well," she replied, suppressing a sob. She quickly paid for her item, grabbed her package and bolted from the store. People near the counter looked at each other silently as the door slammed. Their expressions conveyed heartfelt anguish.

I stood there ashamed. Here was an obvious cancer patient, experiencing a bad day--just like the ones that had engulfed me--and I did nothing to help. I resolved then and there, despite any awkwardness on my part, I would reach out to others like her in the future. As a survivor, it was my duty.

How many times during my own battle with cancer did I feel exasperated and discouraged, scared and angry? Days when I was embarrassed to be seen in public. Days when I was fed up with all the shots and the perpetually foul taste in my mouth. Days when treatment seemed like a never-ending process. Days when I wondered if I was going to live.

Despite their compassionate intentions, friends couldn't fully relate. People were either horrified if I made a joke about my condition, or they put me on a pedestal for enduring it all. But, I wasn't a hero; I was a mere mortal with authentic feelings.

My savior came in the form of a woman I knew who was a lung cancer survivor. Since Dee had previously walked in my steps, she knew the treacherous terrain by heart. On our long walks together, we discussed our fears and frustrations associated with cancer. She validated the imperfect thoughts I shared.

Although an impressive support network exists for cancer patients, it was an up-close, personal connection that helped me through the particularly rough spots.

This is true for all the curve balls life throws us. We need those who have already lived through our painful experience. No one else can fully comprehend the questions, fears and anger like another sufferer...whatever the particular situation. It takes one to know one.

My lowest point emotionally during treatment coincided with a dinner invitation from Dee and her husband. That day, I looked and felt horrible, and wanted to cancel. Nothing my precious husband could say convinced me to change my mind. At the last second, though, I decided to go since I would be spending time, after all, with Dee.

She answered the door looking splendid--chic haircut, stylish outfit, enviable figure--compared to me in all my frumpiness and baldness and bloating. As soon as we sat down in her living room, Dee asked matter-of-factly how I was.

"Fine," I replied, masking my misery.

Gary--who never speaks for me--intervened. He told Dee the truth, that I was having a really tough day. I was so grateful for him speaking the words I couldn't voice.

Without a word, Dee got up and left the room. We sat there in silence. A few moments, she returned with a photo album. She squeezed in between Gary and me on the sofa and flipped the album to the first page.

There she was in living color -- bald, pallid skin, grimacing at the camera. Photo after photo documented her experience with cancer. They say a picture is worth a thousand words. By giving me an intimate glimpse of her struggle, I felt understood and restored.

Now, I realize it's my turn to stand in the gap for others in need.

So when I'm approached to provide information or encouragement for someone who has been diagnosed, I realize that hanging out along the sidelines in silence is no longer an option.

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