- About Breast Cancer
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“Hey, Sweetheart, I just called to wish you Happy Birthday.”
“Oh, thanks! Mom and my sisters are taking me out to dinner to celebrate. How is it with you?”
“Well, I think I should tell you something before you get back so someone else doesn’t tell you.”
“Well, the day before you left, I had an appointment for a mammogram and ultrasound. After looking at my pictures, it was decided I needed a biopsy. I talked the Dr. into doing it right then, as my schedule was full. I didn’t want you worrying and distracted as you drove to Walnut Creek, so I said nothing. I got my biopsy report yesterday. I have breast cancer.”
When you have been married for over 40 years, wives do not take such news lightly. All of their life-long personal dread of such news has been redirected to their husband and they cannot do anything about it.
“Okay, that is your moment,” I told her. “No woe is me stuff.”
“I DID NOT CHOOSE TO WALK CANCER’S PATH, BUT I WILL EMBRACE MY JOURNEY TO THE LAST STEP.”
I often heard her repeating, “Bill says, “I did not choose …,”” as she told the story.
A few months prior I had been watching a show on The Science Channel about breast cancer. A significant portion of the program was about breast cancer in males. About one percent of all cases are male, and certain ethnic groups have an even higher incidence. It was emphasized that men need to self-check.
I was in the shower and thought, “What did they say? Oh, hand behind the head and check breast with other hand. What? There is a tiny firm lump on the right side and not on the left. I better ask when I go for my physical in a couple months.”
I had forgotten to mention the lump by then, but my doctor patiently waited for me to answer her vitally important “What else?” question at the end of my exam.
“I have this funny little bump.”
And so began the journey.
The day I got my biopsy report I called the surgeon’s office. The beautiful person answering the phone shared a bit of her personal journey and assured me I was calling the right place, but I needed to plan for a year or so of possible treatment. Not one to wait, I scheduled my surgery in three weeks. It is a bit unusual to schedule your surgery before meeting the doctor.
Rosie and I spent our 44th wedding anniversary enjoying an initial consultation with Dr. Jennifer Garreau. I believe I may have tried her patience as she was trying her clinical best to be very serious and I was having little of it. I did not like giving a bad grade to one of my chemistry students, yet doctors must give far more difficult messages on a regular basis. Patient-provider relationships play a huge role in the healing process, and I had decided my role would be to support my team of providers as they went about treating my cancer. I wanted our visits to be happy ones, even if the news was bad news. I was going to embrace my journey to the last step.
“You know we are going to need to schedule surgery.”
I replied, “Nope, I already did that. It is two weeks from yesterday.”
“Impossible, you hadn’t even met me. Let’s go right down the hall to scheduling.”
“Winnie, Mr. Amos says he already scheduled a mastectomy, and I’m going to need two and a half hours.”
“July 11. Will 9:00 to 11:30 work?” asked Winnie. There it was, in the book.
Dr. Garreau looked at me and honestly said, “I like you.” In those simple three words, a trusting, caring, team effort in facing the challenges on cancer’s path was cemented.
Following surgery the awesome news was an initial report of clear sentinel nodes and I was home free.
“Hello? Yes, this is Bill.”
“Both nodes were positive?”
“So you say I will need another surgery and chemo now?”
“You sound like you are struggling. I’m not hanging up until I hear you laughing, and my dinner is getting cold. The neighbors are enjoying Chinese with us and everyone is just sitting here with food half way to their mouths while we talk and they listen. I have been over at their house setting pavers for their patio so we are eating late.”
“No, no, no, LEFT handed, I promise, and there was help. He is a doctor too. He already told me I’m not normal, but it is nice to have a second opinion.”
“Okay, now that is better. Just send me an email for the earliest possible and we will get this done. Let’s not waste time for an appointment.”
Lessons for the Teacher
The next day was Saturday. I got to go visit my 92 year old mother and tell her my sister had a massive stroke during the night and was dying, and I had more cancer surgery scheduled along with chemo. With a very emphatic shaking of her finger I was instructed, “You … will … NOT… leave … ME!!”
In mid-November, between my third and fourth rounds of chemo, my dear Rosie had a stroke similar to my sister’s. Suddenly the patient became the caregiver as I tended to her. 2013 was a rather tough year for us, but we have fully recovered and Mom still tells me what to do. As we continue to embrace our journeys I am like a young pup released from their crate. I have the freedom to live without regret.
The first reaction to a cancer diagnosis is to wait until everyone has gone to bed, and then Google every last word in your biopsy report. You begin to seriously contemplate the end of life. No amount of assurances from the doctor can change this. It is a very private time. It is a time of personal and spiritual transformation. As chemotherapy dragged on, and lymphedema arrived, I had to consider permanent changes to activities I once enjoyed. It is often the case that one does not share these thoughts with the ones they love, or those close to them, as they do not want them to carry that burden.
Early in my journey I discovered the value of walking with strangers. We were on the same path and it is far easier to get past an obstacle when you are with someone that has already been there. As strangers, we could share our intimate thoughts and worries without concern. We could message in the middle of the night as we looked up the latest information or discussed side effects. We shared questions to ask our doctors. We sent texts at random times. When you don’t know what to say, “Thinking of you,” is really powerful. Try it. The person that is struggling will fill in the blanks for you with things like, “Thank you s-o-o-o much for your text. I really needed that. At my appointment today they said three tumors are growing. I’m looking for a second opinion.”
Cancer taught me some hard lessons. I learned to love more deeply than ever before. I learned compassion from the most compassionate. I learned to hug. I learned to graciously accept and appreciate kindness and help. I learned to call. I learned to visit as cancer can be very lonely. I learned that we RISE by lifting others. I learned to cry. I learned some paths are quite short when one of my young friends that started her walk at the same time as me invited me to attend her care conference and the doctor said, “I’m sorry.” A few weeks later I was privileged to be with her extended family as they gathered in ICU and sang her favorite hymns in English and Spanish while she entered eternity at age 36. “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound …”
Digging for Diamonds
As the science teacher/survivor, I am often the odd-hours consultant. “My wife’s Jackson-Pratt drain is plugged. How do I get it apart?” I forgot to tell him not to be squeezing the bulb as I described taking my souvenir apart. They did learn that part together.
I have been called by a new patient as they were on the way home from diagnosis. I tell them, “Just think, if you had waited another day, you would have gotten one day sicker. While there are no guarantees, you are now in the position of creating your best possible outcome. Make sure to hold hands as you walk together. You will grow as a couple. No one chooses to walk on Cancer’s path, but you can embrace your journey. Take advantage and fully live your life.”
Time is a gift. It can be wasted. It can be spent on things like daily living activities, or time can be invested in others. Time invested in others will continue to return dividends long after your portion of time has expired. Invest wisely.
Perhaps my daughter said it best when we were sharing at a High School assembly,
“Cancer can be a gift. It is an unlikely gift. It looks ugly and nasty. It is your lump of coal, but as you begin to dig, you find a diamond. The person who had cancer taught me that adversity produces strength, and with strength you gain perseverance, and with perseverance you can overcome obstacles. It is not easy being the family member and the caregiver for someone who is fighting. Some emotions are none … void emotions …, some sadness, some grief, and some anger. When these begin to pass, you begin to find hope, and hope is a miracle. We talk about fighting cancer and winning. I learned it is not a physical battle we fight, or the physical healing that really counts. It is the healing of the soul … The soul is your mind, your will and your emotions, and these are the things that are most important.”
Embrace your journey.
Invest your time.
Dig for diamonds.