Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Journal Assignment IX: Overcoming Adversity

"Into every life some rain must fall." That old saying is quite true. Have you survived a serious illness, an injury, the loss of a loved one, or financial ruin? Even the most fortunate among us may face unpleasant events or even tragedies at times, and the stories of how we faced and overcame those problems can provide valuable lessons to others.

The following example is adapted from a chapter in my memoir, Reinventing Myself: Memoirs of a Retired Professor.

Facing Breast Cancer

My early-stage breast cancer was diagnosed in 1990. Although I am still alive seventeen years later, I can never consider myself cured, and it is very difficult for me to read, write, or think about the “Big C.”

I’d had “lumpy” breasts, or fibrocystic disease, for many years, so self-checks were difficult and mammography results hard to interpret. However, in spring 1990, I found a small lump that seemed different. My doctor checked and ordered a biopsy.

I was terrified, but we were about to begin our motorcycle trip to the Soviet Union. I insisted on postponing the biopsy. The wonderful trip made me forget, as I had hoped it would.

After we returned, I became involved in creating a memory booklet for my 40th high school class reunion, so I didn’t rush back to my doctor. I was feeling fine, and my husband and I enjoyed the reunion. Still, a nagging fear emerged from time to time.

Finally, with my husband nervously pacing in the waiting room, I underwent the biopsy. The news was bad. I remember curling up later on the living room sofa, crying and thinking that my life was over.

My doctor recommended modified radical mastectomy. The choices were one breast or both, restoration or no restoration. I didn’t like the choices, but with my supportive husband’s help, I decided: bilateral mastectomy and no restoration. I was fifty-eight years old at the time, and at a high point in my career. Somehow, the thought of worrying about cancer occurring in a remaining breast or suffering complications of restoration seemed worse than losing a significant part of my body. I was not concerned about beauty and sexiness at the time, as long as I had my husband’s caring support, so that was my decision.

Had I been younger or alone, or had cancer treatment been as advanced as it is today, I might have decided differently.

The operation and the hospital stay were awful, but I’ve put the details out of my mind. Still, I do remember several details from the aftermath.

My teaching colleagues were very supportive. I missed the first week of the fall semester, and when I was able to return, I looked awful. A few people seemed to think I was on the verge of death, and I probably looked that way. Nevertheless, I persevered. I found out about prostheses, or silicone breasts, and got used to them.

I had to make another decision: radiation, chemotherapy, both, or no treatment beyond frequent checkups and Tamoxifen. The doctors disagreed. I gambled on getting only checkups and Tamoxifen; I was not willing to interrupt my career for treatment. I agonized about this for some time; had I made the right decision?

I gambled, but I seem to have won, at least for seventeen years now. I was proud to participate in the 2005 Mothers’ Day Y-Me three-mile walk for breast cancer. Yet to this day, cancer still frightens me.

Facing breast cancer taught me that when I face major problems, I can be a survivor, that curling up on the sofa, crying, and feeling that my life was over was a natural reaction, but not a practical one. And perhaps best of all, I realized what a wonderful, supportive husband I had!

Copyright 2006, 2007 by Marlys Marshall Styne

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