Today is the very last day of the pink tide of celebration that is breast cancer awareness month. It’s also Halloween. I feel like there is some sort of connection to these facts and the email - one of celebration + horror in equal measures - that I received from my best friend Sue.
“Today is my last radiation treatment,” she wrote, and I felt something loosen a little in my heart, something that seems to be connected to my knees. I actually sat down in relief. The treatment over, now maybe she could get on with the business of living.
But the next line brought me back to the ugly reality of what breast cancer really means. “Feeling pretty weak but glad it’s over. By the way - I got fired.”
I’m 48, and I remember when, if you knew what the Susan Komen Foundation was, chances are you were a runner.
The cause came to national consciousness on the heels of nationwide 5K races, an event that spread its pink tentacles to encompass events of all types, distances and conveyances: runners, walkers, bikers, shoppers, diners, credit card users, appliance purchasers, and even Five Hour energy drinkers are all walking, running, eating, drinking and shopping for the cure for breast cancer.
My first memory of what breast cancer is goes all the way back to age eight. When I was young, my parents had a group of friends that were, if not a constant presence, were a continuous one. When you’re a kid, adults are sort of like movie stars - each one is famous with you and your siblings for something.
There were the Duncans, both thin and anxious looking, and the Blaes, both tall and lanky and dark-haired and laughing. The Lodes’ drank beer from the can and liked cards. The Schlesingers and the Muckensturms both had dogs, and moms with a Mary Tyler Moore hair style.
The Haas’ were famous in our house for their size - neither was more than an inch or two away from five foot. They were like Rea Perlman and Danny DeVito before Rea and Danny were themselves. For some reason, their shared tininess made them seem like a couple right out of a fairy tale. If they’d lived in a shoe, that would only have seemed as it should be.
I remember the first time I heard the word mastectomy - when Mrs. Haas needed one because of something called breast cancer. I read a lot as a kid but that was the first time I’d heard that particular word - mastectomy. I couldn’t tell by the sound of it what kind of a thing a mastectomy was - it certainly sounded ominous, but then again, so did tonsillectomy, and my sister had gone through hers fine.
But I understood the word cancer well enough. It was the kind of word no one liked to say. The kind of word that leaves the mouth only reluctantly, with a hiss of horror, a tail of sadness. A word no one wants any truck with, a word that is like a bad smell in polite company. It’s a black crow of a word, the sight ot if sending a shiver of superstition through even rational types. A word that has my eyes-averted respect - as if I could somehow bribe it to keep it away.
Mrs. Hass - Marlene to my mom - always wore her hair in a towering tan-colored Marge Simpson-worthy bun. Her feet! They’re so tiny! my mom would exclaim after spending an evening with the Haases at one of their Friday night card parties, or bowling leagues.
Together they had three small sons - the tallest of them, Bobby, earnestly crushed on by my sister. After Marlene died I thought about them off and on for years, that house of four lost men. I always pictured them bumping into each other in that house, like planets that had become unmoored from a gravitational pull.
When Mrs. Haas came over after the surgery, I was scared to see her, but she looked normal as always, and I felt a kind of cautious relief at the height of her hair, but the relief evaporated like steam when, after she left, mom cried quietly, sitting there alone in the living room so long it started to get dark.
When she died a few years later I wasn’t surprised - but plenty scared - at how familiar the news of her death already seemed. It was then that the word cancer took on a sort of hissing mythology for me. And when I hear the word pronounced by others, I sense, from the averted eyes and quick intakes of breath, that it's a mythology we share.
Breast cancer faded from my awareness until my first job after college, where one of my co-workers, Kevan, had a party on the five year anniversary of his wife Amy’s cancer free diagnosis.
He brought red velvet cupcakes to the office and we congratulated her, and I thought that because she was beautiful and looked so seemingly healthy even after a mastectomy, and because it had been five years (and that was supposed to be good wasn’t it?) and because I knew absolutely nothing about breast cancer, I allowed myself to think that breast cancer maybe wasn’t all that bad, after all. Mrs. Haas had been old, after all. Hadn’t she?
I called mom and asked her, how old was Mrs. Haas when....? and her answer - 36 - was two years younger than Amy was.
Less than a year later and the cancer reappeared, aggressively - her lymph nodes, her spine. In a Love Story like move, Kevan took Amy, still feeling healthy, to Paris. They returned and talked of studying French and returning to Paris later that fall and all of us at that last dinner party beamed at their enthusiasm and allowed ourselves to think that maybe it wasn’t as serious as they’d said. It was the 80s and there wasn’t much awareness about breast cancer - never mind what the different stages of breast cancer were, and how stage one was different from stage four, where Amy now stood, spotlit.
Maybe it’s not as bad as all that, I remember thinking as Kevan dimmed the lights so we could watch the slide show of the kajillions of pictures they took in Paris. It rained the whole time and Amy looked glamorous and Parisian in the pictures, in her shiny black raincoat and classic red lipstick, her brunette bob so sleek you actually forgot it was an illusion - she was, under it, as bald and patchy as a baby turkey vulture.
Over the next hour or so, as the slides clicked by in my light-dimmed living room, that thought - that maybe it was a mistake, it wasn’t all that bad, how could it be if they were planning to go back to Paris in the fall? - well, it would be fair to say that drained away like water.
We watched the slide show and the living room full of dinner party guests became slowly, chokingly silent, the silence the kind that makes you more aware of what’s not being said, not that anyone was really able to speak.
Everything that could not be said, and needed to be said, and would be said was right there in the pictures. The pictures featured Amy at all the classic French locations - at the Louvre, in a cafe - doing all the classic French things, e.g. buying a baguette, testing perfume, sipping red wine, applying lipstick in the reflection of a mirror at a pub, old men smoking pipes in the background. The slide show was like one long goodbye, a visual song Kevan composed as he snapped away, a song for himself, a song to the audience, a song about her.
As the images clicked by the sound of sniffing became audible. We didn’t look at each other’s eyes to verify the shine of tears - no one had to. We didn't look at Amy for fear of upsetting her, but we didn't need to. She was in every picture, you see - every one of what seemed like eight hundred of them. Almost always in the rain coat (it rained every day, they told us in thrilled tones); always smiling, always in the sleek bob of donated hair, always with the classic red lip I’ve never been able to pull off. Always 38.
By the time the lights went back up, most of us had been able to wipe our eyes and noses and manage watery smiles. Those were the last halcyon days of her good health, it turned out. The cancer rolled her up like a rug and she died less than six months later, at home, and when Kevan told me how he told her at the last that he loved her, and how her last words to him were, “I know" I hugged him hard and we cried right there in the office, the cubicles all around.
I got the news that Sue had cancer not from Sue herself, but from a friend who assumed I knew. I’m sorry you found out like that, from someone else, she said to me, and the warm concern for my feelings at such a time is one of those things that, like Mrs. Haas’ Marge Simpson hair, Sue is famous for.
My heart froze up when I heard the sibilant hiss of cancer in the same sentence as Sue’s name. It felt like someone could hit it with the mallet of bad news and effortlessly shatter it into a million pieces.
It thawed somewhat whenever I talked to Sue, herself. She was her same smart, funny, warm, competent self, getting her treatment arranged while commuting between New Mexico and California weekly. She talked about the horrors of her treatment in the same efficient, knowledgeable way she talked about any of the many things she is so good at doing/handling/knowing - Italian cooking, computer technology, human nature - so much so that I found myself responding with the same confidence in her recovery that I had in her homemade gnocchi or marketing plans.
It was a confidence that was severely tested the day of the surgery, when Sue’s mom came out of the recovery room looking immeasurably frailer and older than when she went in and we all held her in a circle as she cried.
But as Sue recovered from the injury of surgery added to the insult to her body that is cancer, her calm was reassuring, even (especially) in the bald staring face of the facts - a stage 3a tumor, a double radical mastectomy, dense dose chemo, endless weeks of radiation.
She had a boob party before the surgery, and before chemo she shaved her head before the cancer could, and held my hand against the downy duckness of it and we laughed together because laughing together is one of those things we’re famous for, and I thought how fear is like an icicle, a thing that keeps refreezing, even as it melts.
I had a house party for her in the wine country, and as her employees arrived in droves and flocked around her in the sunshine, I knew how they felt - before she was my friend Sue was my colleague and mentor. Everyone I know claims her as a mentor - she is one of those people that exudes such a sense of command, and listen-ability, and thoughtfulness, that people instinctively seek her out for her advice and help -- even when she's wounded and bandaged. It's the nature of Sue that when we gathered around her and gave comfort, we were also deriving comfort from her.
There are many companies that treat their cancer-stricken employees with legendary dignity and kindness (see: Thinking PInk: Heroes and Zeroes of Silicon Valley). With some great examples in her own sector, and with the popularity and leadership she enjoyed among her staff, I assumed that Sue would be in good company as she recovered.
I was mistaken about that - and how. Sue’s company treated her what could most kindly be described as a novel sensitivity -if the novel was Lord of the Flies.
Go home, you’re bad for business, her boss told her, when, after having her breasts scooped out like melons and her body pumped full of poison, Sue, ever the conscientious executive, returned to work after her surgery and first chemotherapy treatment.
I was appalled but not surprised. He's a guy so completely unaware of what he doesn’t know he could almost be forgiven for mistaking his Trumpian lack of self-doubt as genius. Combine an emperor with no clothes and the Red Queen of Wonderland - the one who was always ordering beheadings to keep her subjects in line - and you’ll get the idea.
Can they do that? I asked Sue, fuming on her behalf. You’re in the middle of cancer treatment and your hair hasn’t even started growing back and they are seriously *firing* you? Saying it aloud like that made it seem less rather than more real. Surreal.
So Sue closes out Breast Cancer Awareness Month not with a celebration for surviving the surgery and the chemo and the radiation, but with no income, costly, short term, COBRA health insurance (for which she is grateful), and a lawsuit to try to salvage some sort of livelihood for a very uncertain future.
Which just goes to show that just because you survive that murderer lurking in the garden called cancer, it doesn’t mean you’ll be exempt from slipping on a banana peel.
She saw her boss in the elevator the other day. He didn’t speak to her, but his wife violated the First Rule of Elevators and hugged Sue, giving a “just try to stop me” glare to her husband the genius as she did so.
I have more awareness of breast cancer now - more than I ever wanted. The march of years has added to my personal list rather alarmingly. A former colleague, the wives of two friends, a grade school chum recently rediscovered on Facebook. Each is at a different stage of treatment recovery; only one has died, and my mind holds this up like an illusory protective shield against the survival rate statistics.
If someone I know has already lost the battle, then Sue is safe, or so the reasoning of my heart goes. I am a market researcher by training - an analyzer of sophisticated statistics, but since the news of Sue’s diagnosis, I am more prone to these instances of magical thinking.
I don’t really let myself think about the numbers, Sue told me, and I can see the logic in that. She just got done fighting for her life, and now she must gear up mentally, physically and emotionally for the fight *of* her life - the fight for her livelihood.
Joy of life - that’s what the name Susan means, or is derived from. It used to bother me that my own name doesn’t have a delicate, feminine ring to it, or an appropriately feminine meaning like ‘joy of life’ or 'beloved' or 'cherished of God'. Sandra, it turns out, is an aggressor of a name, derived as it is from Alexander, which means ‘defender of mankind’.
Now I am glad to have evaded some feminine, wispy fated name; a name like a suit of armor suits me just now. Don’t know if I’m up for the task of all mankind, but I hope to offer Sue, the joy of so many lives, whatever protection - magical or otherwise - that the powers of my name has bestowed on me.