By the time my friend Ruth was diagnosed with colon cancer, I was already a long-time cancer patient myself. I suppose my seeming comfort with the word made acceptance more casual for her……if a cancer diagnosis can ever be considered casual. It’s best to just fight like mad, get to the best doctors you can find and then interpret the statistics in a positive manner. So, when my oncologist said the overwhelming majority of patients like you survive, I really understood, and denied, that he could be talking about only 51%. And that survival in his language was five years. I heard survive and stopped listening.
And I never give myself or Ruth an ayin ha ra! Also known as a toot toot toot or kaneinahara! Help me out here. My superstitions will never be cured!
My Aunt Edith, twin to my father, lived until her late 80’s. She had a famous story that she told over and over. She had had a heart attack at the age of 40 and she asked the doctor: Doc, how much longer do I have? The doctor responded, No one knows for sure. Maybe five or ten years. This was always followed by a happy cackle :Do you know how long that doctor is dead?
Not wishing death to any of my doctors, it does help to understand that cancer survival statistics are this way: either 0% or 100%. Either you beat it or it eventually beats you. And, needless to say, the battle is not fun!
For sure, if cancer doesn’t beat you, something else will.
So, I have no breasts. It’s a long story of cancer redux but I felt at diagnosis that I was one of the fortunates who had actually used my breasts to accomplish something beautiful before I lost them. I was able to feed my four babies. How lucky was that! Really, that’s why women have breasts anyway and of all the experiences I’ve had in my life, without a doubt, the greatest and most satisfying was the indescribable sensation of breasts heeding the infant’s cry and responding by filling up with nature’s greatest sustenance, breast milk. Those moments are treasured memories. We women are so lucky and gifted to be able to do this miraculous act. Forget mana. God must surely have sent down breast milk to his hungry supplicants on their 40 year journey.
Cancer comes with all sorts of stories. Some are really horrific. People can be so insensitive and when you’re possibly dying you don’t really need to hear inane commentary.
But there are also some experiences that are beautiful.
Last year on a trip to the Republic of Georgia, in the Caucasus, our driver mentioned in passing that we were about 20 miles east of his grandparent’s home. Our threesome (my husband, sister and I) suggested that it would be lovely for us to meet his grandparents. He jumped at the opportunity and made a date for early evening, on our way back towards Tbilisi.
He told us about his grandparents. They had spent their working lives living in Tbilisi, the capital, but, in retirement, had bought a country home. This turned out not to be a charming villa. Not at all. On the other hand, we can’t and won’t ever forget our visit.
His grandparents lived miles down a narrow country lane which had virtually no traffic, pedestrian or vehicular. A few laden wagons pulled by horses and donkeys passed us. They were not recreational. Working animals. Working people.
ბებია და ბაბუა bebia du babia, grandmother and grandfather, were remarkable. They lived on a deep lot, which was in actuality a small farm, where they grew virtually all of the food that they ate all year. Bebia would pickle vegetables, make her own cheese and bread, and they sustained themselves. Babia was the farmer in chief and took care of the various farm animals who provided dairy and probably meat.
The home was primitive. No running water indoors. No toilet. A dark, dank, outhouse sat off to the side about 30 feet from the house.
When we arrived the al fresco table was set for guests: us. Our friend, the driver, had told them that we would not eat meat. Jews are well known in Georgia, where a large community peacefully existed into the 20th century. Some synagogues still survive but kosher food would clearly not be available in the tiny village we were visiting.
A lovely vegetarian spread was laid out and we ate and ate and ate. Crisp unusually tasty cucumbers. Plump and sweet tomatoes. Fresh hot homemade pita. Baked potatoes. On and on and on.
Conversation was limited to smiles, nods, mmmms, and appreciative glances. Not a word in common had we.
After supper, my sister and husband joined babia and the driver for a tour of the animal quarters, small as they were. I remained behind to help bebia with the cleanup. That’s when it happened. We were alone.
She reached out and gently touched the area where my breasts had been. She stroked briefly and then put my hand on her own breastless chest. We embraced. We each shed a tear and went on to wordlessly finish the cleanup.
A few years earlier my husband and I were on a bus in Riga, Latvia. We spoke no Latvian, also known as Lettish. Sitting across the aisle from me was a middle aged woman. She was sobbing. I didn’t know what to do. I knew that I could not ignore it
I moved across the aisle and she intuitively moved to the window making space for me. I handed her a clean tissue and, without benefit of words, helped by her motioning to her breasts, figured out that she had just been diagnosed with cancer. I hugged her and brought her hands to my chest. Then I showed her my passport. I was trying to tell her that her life was not over. That she might yet travel and see the world. I hope and pray that she understood, and I hope and pray that she is alive and healthy to this day, years after our encounter. Who knows? Maybe we will meet again in some exotic port.
I’m not here to moralize. Cancer is no one’s elective! But some of the club members are very nice.