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

Monday, July 14, 2008

Wine & Whine

About once a month, I meet with a couple of friends, and we vent and rant about what's on our minds. We're a safe outlet to share our fears and frustrations about all that the issues we're facing in midlife. Since we cluster around food & drink and talk nonstop into the night, we thought it was fitting to call our gathering, "Wine & Whine." While some find value in book clubs, we find meaning in whining.

Naturally, all conversations are strictly private, so I won't share any details. However, the one common denominator is how much we've all endured by the time we've reached the age we are now. Our journey has not always led us down a yellow brick road to the Emerald City where all wishes are granted. We are no longer wide-eyed, innocent Dorothy's, who triumph over the Wicked Witch. Life is a little more complicated than that.

I will tell you that since Gary & I have been married (8 years), we have navigated through financial hits, career crises, elderly parents with debilitating illnesses, extended family concerns...and then there's cancer added to the mix. (Not to mention Atlanta traffic, but that's another rant altogether.)

It's all we've been able to do to keep our heads above water.

So, as much as I celebrate the good news of being "cancer free" now, I'm waiting for the next trauma to deal with...you could say my nerves are shot.

They call this Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which, like Wine & Whine, is a perfect descriptor.

After I came home from my second surgery, a friend gave me "In An Instant" by Lee Woodruff. Lee is the wife of ABC news anchor, Bob Woodruff, who suffered a critical brain injury from an explosive device while reporting the war in Iraq.

Her book totally engaged me, as I read with interest and empathy. Although Bob's head injury was severe, Lee had endured many tragedies in adulthood: She had lost a child, uprooted multiple times during her marriage, discovered one of her daughters was deaf, had a sister with a brain tumor and faced the possibility, herself, of having cancer.

She writes: "The more trauma a person has been through, the more they have seen, the worse the PTSD is. The cumulative effect appears to make the person much more susceptible."

She goes on to share how the horrific experience with her husband's slow recovery affected her: "I had morphed from a confident wife and parent into a woman fearful of everything, especially of my kids getting hurt...I saw potential head injuries everywhere. Even driving my car felt scary now. All I ever seemed to say as a mother was, 'Don't do that, stop it, be careful there.' I had become a coiled spring, waiting for the next injury or accident."

She admits, after the crisis was over and her husband was on the road to recovery: "A tiny part of me keeps waiting for a shoe to drop, for something bad to happen. When Bob doesn't answer me from another room after a few beats, I walk in to check on him. When he doesn't return from the store in a reasonable time, I make a call. These are my battle scars."

Amen, Sister! Can I ever relate! When I finished cancer treatment and began resuming a "normal life" again, I worried constantly about those I loved dying. I worried that Gary would have a car wreck on the way to the office, or his plane would crash on a business trip. (I even left his messages on voice-mail until he arrived safely home, in case that was the last time I heard his voice.)

If I had trouble reaching my parents, I imagined they were lying on the floor suffering a heart attack. Death had become a real possibility, and I realized we were all hanging onto life by a thread -- that any of us could be taken out at any moment. I didn't rest.

Although I've calmed down a little bit, I'm still on edge when it comes to my loved ones' safety. And, from time to time, I picture scenarios of potential future problems, so I can devise a plan of action -- just in case.

The one thing that helps calm me is knowing deep down that I can rise to a challenge and all that it entails. I know this because of my experience with cancer and facing my own mortality. I'm stronger than I ever realized.

Lee Woodruff makes a great point in view of her sufferings: "The moments that define us, that strip us down to raw bone and cartilage and build us back up: they are the tough ones. They are the stories of grief or tragedy, stories tinged with sadness and sorrow...I believe how we attack those curve balls is the stuff of life; they count just as much as the good times...

"And so, we have to choose to laugh and to keep smiling. We have to hope that there is always something better around the corner. We doubt our ability to rise to meet hardship, and we do everything in our power to avoid it. We have to dig down, to believe unfailingly in the ability of the human spirit to triumph in ways we didn't think possible. To make the choice to be resilient, ultimately to bounce back, is to make the choice to be grateful, as grateful as possible for the cards you've been dealt."

I might have to invite Lee Woodruff to join our Wine & Whine group.