Chemo? No, Thanks
"If I were you," said the radiologist, as I sat on the gurney discreetly wiping goo from my right breast, "I'd make an appointment with a breast surgeon as soon as possible." His somber tone of voice, the white blotch radiating ugly spider tendrils on his ultrasound screen...neither of these made me nervous. If anything, I felt mild interest: "How very odd. He must think I have breast cancer. Or something."
Ten days later, after a lumpectomy and sentinel lymph node biopsy, my husband and I sat in the breast surgeon's office. "I'm so sorry," he said. "You have Stage IIb breast cancer. There's a 1.1 cm tumor in your right breast, and the cancer has spread to three of your lymph nodes."
I looked first at his solemn face, then around the room. Who was he talking to? I believe the psychological term is "dissociation": a defense mechanism against painful emotions. Oddly, I didn't feel particularly frightened--just very, very tired. Neal drove me home and I took a five-hour nap.
When I woke up, I realized it was true. I had breast cancer.
Three days later, barely recovered from the lumpectomy, I had a second surgery to remove another cluster of lymph nodes (good news: all clear). "That surgery wasn't so bad," I chirped as I squeezed clear yellow fluid from the drain that dangled below my armpit. "I can handle this."
And then, in the oncologist's office, I heard the dread word "chemo." With no experience of cancer among my family or friends, I knew only one thing about this treatment: it was always discussed in grim whispers. I was suddenly, sickeningly terrified. Neal held me as I sobbed, "I'm not afraid of losing my hair...I'm afraid of losing my dignity." I imagined uncontrollable vomiting. Unbearable pain. Writhing in bed as Neal watched, horrified, unable to help me. It was these images, not the fear of dying, that made my heart pound. My terror, I realized, was of losing control. And the only way I could make it through was to take some of that control back.
As a writer, I believe strongly in the power of words. Over the next few days, I thought about chemo. An ugly sound: kee-mow. Being mowed down by a viciously sharp-beaked Kee monster, a cross between a vulture and a velociraptor. "We won't call it chemo," I announced firmly, as much to myself as to Neal. "We'll call it chemotherapy, and we'll say it like we mean it. It's medicine. It's going to save my life."
I read everything I could find about chemotherapy. I came across the concept of visualization: picture the chemicals killing the cancer cells, imagine them as little submarines firing torpedoes. Well, fine, but I'm essentially a pacifist. How could I go to war against my own body? Besides, it seemed to me that if I were a cancer cell being attacked by a torpedo, I'd find a quiet spot behind the liver and simply hide until the battle was over. Then I'd come out and multiply like crazy.
So, after some thought, I created a different metaphor. I had always been fond of Cinderella's plump little fairy godmother. At the start of each chemotherapy infusion, I imagined hundreds of miniature fairy godmothers wielding tiny magic wands, floating through my bloodstream searching for cancer cells. Whenever they discovered one they would gaily call out "Bibbidi-bobbidi-boo!" and transform it into...a rose. As the other cancer cells realized what was happening, I reasoned, they would come running. After all, who would want to be an--ugh--cancer cell when you could be a beautiful rose? People hate cancer cells. They love roses. Operating on the assumption that everyone (even a cancer cell) wants to be loved, I sent my fairy godmothers to offer the gift of transformation.
It became a group project. Neal bought me a book filled with lush pictures of roses; I flipped through its pages the night before each infusion. I bought myself a gaudy ring adorned with a big honking rose. Friends sent rose paraphernalia: soap, lotion and greeting cards. Everyone learned to say chemotherapy...and seemed to mean it. After the first infusion, my terror subsided: my oncologist prescribed medications that eliminated nausea and managed pain. I wrapped my Hermes scarves around my bald head and wore blusher every day. My dignity occasionally slipped a bit (as did the scarves), but it never crumbled.
I visualized fairy godmothers. And roses. I never called it chemo. Did any of this make a difference? I have no proof, but I'm convinced that it did. The treatment was hard (four months of biweekly five-hour infusions, an intravenous cocktail of three medications whose side effects included fatigue, diarrhea, mouth sores, muscle aches and bone pain). But it truly wasn't horrible. I believe that choosing my own word, creating my own metaphor, helped. It gave me a critical feeling of control.
I have been in remission for two-and-a-half years. I no longer think about roses or fairy godmothers. I exercise, eat a healthy diet, get regular exams and cherish every day. But, should the time come, I'll take the magic wand out of storage. The metaphor will be waiting for me. And I'll never call it chemo.
About the author:
Elaine Whitman EdD is professor emeritus in the Department of Family and Preventive Medicine at the University of Utah School of Medicine, where she taught students and faculty how to identify and support patients who were experiencing domestic abuse. Her 2005 breast cancer diagnosis put that work in her rearview mirror; she now plays the Native American flute for hospice patients and is a volunteer archivist at Robinson Jeffers Tor House in Carmel, California. She also enjoys bird-watching, hiking, knitting, hand spinning and painting.
It was wonderful reading about your journey through this time in your life. I was so impressed by your positive outlook regarding the chemo treatments - so encouraging and uplifting & such a gift for others going through a difficult time.
What an incredible piece of writing and so heartwarming.
So positive and constructive too, for those who have suffered. Thank you.
Bravo, Elaine! What a wonderful, strengthening story! Everyone builds the metaphor that works for them. A friend of mine uses tiny Pacmen who dash through her system devouring unhealthy cells that lie in their path. Roses and fairy godmothers are a wonderful, fanciful, harkening back to childhood. Thank you for this sharing experience!
Elaine, may you live a long, healthy, blessed life, and keep looking at the world through rose-colored glasses! :) You're a better warrior than you thought!
Thanks for sharing this sweet, powerful story. Good luck to you! Keemosabe!
I love this story. It reminds me of my mom :)
Dear Elaine -- I have always been troubled by the war imagery, too. Roses and Fairy Godmothers are much more powerful; bringing love and life to what would limit life. Thank you for beautiful writing, powerful images and generous sharing. Mary
I too will be keeping printed copies of Elaine's essay available for rereading. Somehow, just when we'd think writing would be impossible, it becomes suddenly inevitable. Thank you Elaine for your strength and gifts. All the best!
Your personal journey is one that should be shared with others. The opposite emotion of fear is love...and you chose love....and as an advocate for breast cancer....I will share your story. Namaste....Maria Lyzen
Thank you, Eileen, for sharing your story. Words hold more power than we tend to give them credit for. Amazing really, how words and metaphors can give us strength and hope during difficult times. May your essay help others to find the same power and comfort...
What a wonderful and power making story. I will share this with my friends and family some of whom are struggling with cancer.
Thank you for blessing my day. You've gifted many with this essay. And I know I'll be gifted by your healing, loving story whenever I encounter roses and fairy godmothers and am reminded of you, dear vibrant Elaine. Thank you!
Beautifully written and inspiring. Thank you so much for sharing. My your fairy godmothers be with you always.
Dear Elaine, Thanks for the wonderful story. I remember your work well and have used your materials on DV in my teaching. I wish you well as you continue your journey!
Once again, the power of words (and images) prevails. You've created a potent weapon against fear, Elaine. Many thanks.
Elaine, your essay touched my heart. As caregiver last year to my husband (testicular cancer), I recall so many times that disassociation--like I was watching through eyes not my own.
Your metaphors are so lovely, so hopeful. I confess during the worst of my husband's chemoTHERAPY, the darkness did descend...but his cancer was curable, and we're almost ten months into remission.
I've got to go prune my roses right now!
Elaine,could this be a metaphor to sink a thousand tiny ships? I shall remember it when my time comes.
Elaine, what a lovely and inspirational piece. It brought me back to Ron's journey, and the amplified power of our own imaginings which create personal miracles. Thank you for your generous share. Nina
Thank you, Elaine, for your generosity in sharing your very personal experience with others. Your brutally honest and beautifully expressed essay will benefit many, whether they are struggling with cancer or another illness themselves, or supporting a relative or friend through the experience. Bouquets of roses and warm hugs to you! And do stay well!
What a great article. She captures perfectly the remarkable twin nature of many women with breast cancer - both the vulnerability and the
strength. The short personal tagline provided tells us even more: that
she responded to her experience as so many women with breast cancer
have: with an even stronger commitment to helping others.
Elaine, your ability to find positive energy in the whole "cancer experience" is heroic and inspiring. By harnessing the fear and transforming it into positive action, the diagnosis becomes more of a lesson than a tragedy. I'm not sure if I would be the same person today if not for my cancer at age 29. I appreciate every single thing in life. Good for you for choosing to make this experience empowering.
Lovely ideas and powerful thoughts Elaine...you are blessed. I'll keep this for possible future use, or do you think your fairy godmother can zap fat cells to ???? (I'll have work on this metaphor and put it to use as my meds help me on this). Thanks so much for so beautifully sharing this intimate challenge.
What an uplifting, inspiring scenario for dealing with cancer of any kind. I especially agree that taking control is important, empowering and ,I believe, essential. I have many friends who practice Healing Touch and relate that visualization helps heal us. Thank you for your wonderful article and may blessings be abundant in your life.
Awesome ... we need more of this approach to empower others to reach deep to honor the body while going through such a challenge. I, too, although with ovarian cancer, could not see the benefit to fight my body but meditated to some wonderful cd's that assist in "allowing" the chemoTHERAPY to work in harmony with my body to release the residual cells. BRAVO
Writing and visual aides have always
been a great pacifier for bad times.
I have many friends who have gone
through this and I loved your rose
metaphor. Keep healthy and keep
up the good work we are all rooting
for you and planting roses.
Cheers to you and Neal Maxine Landis
Lovely. Thank you. May you stay healthy. I deal with my breast cancer experience by telling my psychotherapist colleagues about it so that they might more accurately imagine their clients' experiences.
Thanks, Elaine. Isn't it interesting how intentionality can transform a difficult experience into one that is livable? Sometimes it is so hard to choose joy, but the rewards for doing so are immense.
Thank you for your story, Elaine. I love the image that you created, one of transformation. Thanks also for pointing out that loss of control or dignity may trigger much of the fear that many people with illness deal with.
I know that many reading this story will see it as hopeful and so positive. The roses and fairy godmother are helpful metaphors for so many challenging events of our times.
Thanks so much. I'll keep this info where I can access it for friends, and if needed, for myself. It seems as though some personal adaptation of it could help when only terror prevails otherwise.