An old acquaintance from college, now a Facebook friend, she and I have found we have more things in common than we thought over the years.
We lived on the same floor of the all girls dormitory and I don’t remember much about those days where she is concerned, except that at the time I was very much in the throes of a militant feminism/piercing/tattoo/anti-establishment phase without knowing what most of that meant. As long as I could shock my parents and get free drinks once I got down off my soapbox, that was what I cared about most deep down.
On the other hand, Jane, not her real name, was probably the nicest and yet most boring person I knew on our floor. Well maybe not the most boring but she was plenty dull in my eyes. She was quiet and unassuming, studied a lot, had conservative opinions about all things in general, and wore clothes that made her look like an LL Bean catalogue model. I can’t imagine what she must have thought of me.
We both graduated. I joined the Peace Corps and was the Taylor Swift of relationships. She got married young and had three children. I eventually married for keeps at 33 and relocated soon after the wedding to live in London. She now lives a somewhat comfortable life, I imagine, as a suburban housewife outside of a major city. She Zumbas while sharing tips on Crock Pot recipes and where best to buy your children’s back-to-school clothes. I volunteer at a soup kitchen and am on a first name basis with most of the staff of our local pub.
I discovered when I was dating my husband that she and I shared an acquaintanceship with a third party who I would get together with in social situations. Naturally, we became friends on Facebook.
This morning I got a Facebook message; a group message that detailed the findings of the genetic testing Jane had had done a few months ago. This test was for the BRCA gene. The breast cancer gene. Jane has it.
She has a 57-87 percent chance of developing breast cancer in her lifetime. Oh, and a 24-54 percent chance of developing ovarian cancer. Since this is genetic, it shouldn’t surprise you to know that Jane’s mother died of breast cancer while Jane was still in her twenties.
Jane now has three children under 8 years of age and she is considering going in for a double mastectomy and a possible partial hysterectomy. She doesn’t want to wait, she says. She’s seen where that road leads, she walked it with her mother, and she doesn’t want to even point her toes in that direction. And I don’t blame her.
Jane is a realist. These surgeries will lower her risk of cancer in those areas to a less than the 2-8 percent chance of occurrence. And she refuses to use words like ‘survivor’, refuses to say someone ‘won’ their battle against this disease. Jane knows that by using those terms to define those who manage to live in spite of cancer invading their bodies, we are unconsciously putting those who don’t make it in the sub category of ‘victim’ and ‘loser’. Jane knows that cancer just…is.
She’s willing to face the pain of surgery and recovery now while she’s still healthy and in control, rather than wait to be invaded and dominated by a mass of incontinent cells that carve her life into pieces as she lives it. If she goes through with it, it will be like Herodotus’ legend of the Amazonian warriors who would solder off their left breasts to make themselves better adept at archery. Like the delicate woman in the Stephen Crane novel, ‘The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky’; she takes an axe and chops off the hired man’s infected finger rather than have it turn gangrenous and kill him even though before she went west she’d never even used a pocketknife to cut a shoelace.
Jane knows her enemy. She knows it’s only a matter of time before it comes for her. She recognises its face, its ways, its strategies. She is going out to meet it rather than wait, huddled and afraid, for it to find her.
This is a different kind of courage than what we are used to seeing or reading about in cancer sufferers. When we think of cancer we see it in our minds eye the way it is portrayed in the media. It is a bald woman, skinny, pale. It is a man hooked up to a breathing apparatus, wearing a hospital gown and an ID bracelet. It is a child lying wasted in a bed surrounded by stuffed toys, a scar on the side of his head from where his brain tumour was removed.
Cancer imbues its victims with a quiet dignity, a stalwart, dreamy acceptance of the vagaries of life…that’s what the commercials make it look like. This is a lot of bullshit and both Jane and I know it. The reality is that a diagnosis of cancer is not the automatic catalyst for someone showing their inner saintliness. Cancer comes with screaming and swearing and raging. It comes with vomit and diarrhoea and blood. Cancer comes with sweating and shivering and crying. It comes with incredible, agonizing, stabbing, shooting, throbbing, pulsating pain. Cancer makes people delirious, demented, and depressed. And until you get it you won’t know which ‘you’ you will be. I guarantee you will be lucky to be someone for whom quiet reconciliation is your go-to persona.