Secrets of Survival

A young mom shares how she fought breast cancer -- and won.

Introduction

mom and 2 daughters

There was a time when I'd see people who'd been in horrible accidents, who had life-threatening illnesses, or who cared for children who were severely disabled and think there was absolutely no way I could do what they were doing. I lived in fear of coming face to face with a frightening event that would throw me outside the limited range of my comfort zone. "I'm bad in a crisis," I would glibly admit, as if you could actually choose whether to rise to the occasion. But, of course, you can't really choose. You somehow just do what needs to be done, and more often than not, you find that you have an arsenal of tools at your disposal.

My crisis was a diagnosis of breast cancer at age 35, when my daughters were 6 and 3. What followed was a season of surgeries and a slew of complications: Over the course of six months I had a biopsy, a lumpectomy, a mastectomy, reconstructive surgery, and internal infections that prevented me from driving yet demanded that I go to the hospital every day for six weeks. It turned out that I'm actually pretty good in a crisis. So many things helped get me through.

Prayer

Before my diagnosis I had a prayer life equivalent to my now-7-year-old's: I gave thanks and I asked God to look over the people I love. This proved somewhat lacking when I thought I might die. I adopted a prayer written by Annie Dillard, the great naturalist writer. Her words say everything I felt about being sick: I am a frayed and nibbled survivor in a fallen world, and I am getting along. The echo I kept hearing back from God was, "Yes." I'm also a longstanding member of an Episcopal church, and I found great comfort in the ritual of Sunday morning services.

    Honesty

    I could have lied to my daughters when I was diagnosed; they might have bought it. But I couldn't bear to pretend in my own home, so I decided to tell my kids I was sick.

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      After dinner one night, my husband and I sat our girls down on the couch in the living room, a spot we reserved for serious discussions about clearing your place at the table or going to bed on time. We explained that I had breast cancer. The girls knew about the disease because my husband's mother had died from it. The first words out of our 6-year-old's mouth were: "Are you going to die?" We had decided to say, "No, not yet, not from this." That was all she needed to know. My younger daughter had more specific questions: How were the doctors going to get the cancer out? Was I going to get a shot? Was it going to hurt? I drew tiny pencil dots on a page of white paper, then erased them to explain the treatment process. She wrinkled her tiny brow and nodded.

      My girls responded to my honesty with insight and resiliency. They now understand that people live and people die, and our bodies change in between. I can't think of a more powerful lesson to pass along.

      Girlfriends

      In times of trouble, women sustain other women. Yes, I have a wonderful husband who helped me through my illness with grace and courage, and I have a wonderful father who did the same, but it was women who sustained me day to day in myriad amazing ways -- by making me Miso soup, peach smoothies, and macaroni and cheese; taking my kids to school, to the movies, to Burger King; packing up my Christmas ornaments; and stripping their clothes off so I could see what a rebuilt breast really looked like.

      It's not easy asking for this kind of help. My kids spent a lot of time under other people's care. This was agonizing for me -- to have to always ask for help, to not be with my kids, to keep the logistics straight. But I couldn't have healed without that help.

        Stories

        I read voraciously when I was sick -- books, Internet articles, pathology reports. Dr. Susan Love's Breast Book by Susan Love, M.D., and A Woman's Decision (about surgery and reconstruction) by Karen Berger and John Bostwick III, M.D., were my mainstays, and had it been published at the time I would have read Breast Cancer Q&A by Charyn Pfeuffer. I also gravitated toward stories about illness. I devoured Kitchen Table Wisdom & My Grandfather's Blessings by Rachel Naomi Remen, M.D., and First, You Cry by Betty Rollin and reread Intoxicated by My Illness by Anatole Broyard with a whole new perspective. Information is vital, of course, but stories help and heal.

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          Chamomile tea

          The surgery to reconstruct my breast using flesh from my tummy left me with a fist-sized wound in my abdomen. For weeks I couldn't move from the couch, and so I didn't. When people came to visit, they just walked in. They usually asked if they could get me anything, and I often wanted chamomile tea. There's something about tea that makes having to stay in one place easier. You can't help but stop and slow down -- and since this was what I needed to be doing, the tea helped me make sense of it.

          My stuffed bunny

          I can't stand the sight of blood, so when I had to go to the hospital to have my gash scraped out and packed with gauze every day for six weeks, I took a buckwheat-stuffed bunny pillow with me -- I'd bought it years ago for a 12-hour plane ride -- and placed it over my eyes. Nurses laughed, and my surgeon still calls me the Bunny Lady, but it's what I needed for comfort and what got me through. Chances are, whether you think you're good in a crisis, you know what'll get you through too.