What I've Learned About Cancer

by Debra Purdy Kong

Until my daughterís kindergarten teacher was diagnosed with breast cancer in the early part of 1994, Iíd never met anyone who had this disease. Three months after her diagnosis, my thirty-six-year-old sister, Val, got the same diagnosis. A specialist had told her that the lump in her right breast was a cyst that would likely drain on its own, but it hadnít.

When she began to bleed through the nipple, it became obvious that her condition was serious. By the end of 1994 I knew, directly or indirectly, sixteen women who had endured this disease at some point in their lives.

The same week Val told us her shocking news, I discovered I was pregnant with our much-awaited second child. Iíd already had two miscarriages and felt myself walking on eggshells, struggling to stay optimistic about this last chance at pregnancy. I didnít know how to help Val when I saw myself (selfishly, in hindsight) in a life and death situation of my own.

While our family waited for test results after her lumpectomy, we focused on all the things she had going for her: healthy lifestyle, positive attitude, strong marriage, supportive friends, and a sympathetic employer whose wife was coping with the same illness.

The test results on her lump werenít good. Most of the tissue was cancerous and Val was immediately scheduled for a radical mastectomy. When more friends and family members heard about her upcoming surgery, many were upset and frightened for her. Her determination to face her fears and beat this disease convinced me sheíd survive.

When my sister returned home from the hospital she thought the worst was over. Since her cancer had spread slowly, the doctors said there was only a five percent chance the disease had reached her lymph nodes. So when she learned that two of the extracted lymph nodes contained cancerous cells and that sheíd need chemotherapy, she was devastated.

It was the first time Iíd seen her cry in years.

Over the following days, she gathered enough courage to join a support group, take a relaxation course, and have her waist-length hair cut off to make her pending hair loss less burdensome.

Two months after my sisterís chemo treatments ended, the colleague of a friend was diagnosed with breast cancer. I also learned that a former co-worker of mine died from the disease the same month my sister was diagnosed. Since that time, we have had one more relative contract breast cancer - my brother-in-lawís uncle. Yes, it can afflict men, too. When another relative, by marriage, was diagnosed six months after my sister, I finally got the message.

There is no such thing as a typical breast cancer patient. One neednít be post-menopausal. My sister was a non-smoking, physically fit person with an aversion to high fat food long before the lump appeared. Nor was there a history of breast cancer in our family. One third of her support-group members were under forty years old. Many of them had young children and demanding jobs outside their homes. A number of these women also discovered lumps that did not appear on subsequent mammograms. This disease is not only prevalent, but also unpredictable.

A year after Valís diagnosis, I discovered a pea-sized lump and went to my family physician straight away. My sisterís experience had taught me not to delay an examination ó the worse thing a woman can do is nothing. The visit with my doctor resulted in a trip to the lab for an ultrasound, then a second trip for a diagnostic mammogram. I was thirty-nine years old, frightened, and coping with the demands of my newborn son.

My lump turned out to be nothing more than a clogged milk duct, a common occurrence in breast-feeding women, but those five weeks of waiting and worrying allowed me to better understand some of the initial fear and uncertainty she had suffered.

As I write this, I happily report that the kindergarten teacher, my relative, and my sister are well. As with many cancer survivors, the experience has caused them to re-evaluate their lives and change what wasnít working.

In Valís case, this meant simplifying her life to spend more time doing the things she loves. She joined a dragon boat paddling team manned by other breast cancer survivors. Their team has competed in Vancouver, Victoria, Portland, Seattle, New Zealand and this year, Toronto.

When I watch Val paddle with her teammates, I see a joy and exuberance that I havenít seen since she was a kid running amuck in our backyard.

At age forty, she grins and whoops and raises her fist with the triumph and pride of a child who has just hit her first home run. Her teammates (many over age fifty) join her, and their enthusiasm spreads to their families and friends, and entire crowds. With their headbands, life jackets, and paddles, these warriors demonstrate what it means to really be alive.

But these women also live with physical scars, emotional scars, somber memories, and the knowledge that their cancer could return. Three members of Valís team suffered recurrences and died this year.

Still, they show the importance of pressing on. Not only is there life after cancer, but that life can be wild and joyous! This is the most important thing Iíve learned about the disease. Itís what I hold close to my heart every day.

Debra has published over 70 short stories, essays, and articles for publications in North America and England. She's also published a mystery novel called Taxed to Death.

(c) Debra Kong

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