Commentary and Cancer and Opinion

DAVIS: Looming deadline not so big now

August 17, 2009

It’s amazing the difference one day can make in your perspective about, well, everything.

A month ago, I was stressed out beyond belief—losing sleep as a work deadline came careening toward me. I lay awake at night, mentally running through my growing to-do list. I awoke before dawn in a panic that I’d forgotten something important. I logged onto my computer before even brushing my teeth just to get a jump-start on the day.

Then I found out I have cancer.

That’s a tough thing to admit, out loud or in print, even after a few weeks of getting used to the idea. The family and friends I’ve told about my diagnosis have been kind enough to ask how I feel, but the answer seems incomplete. I feel fine—physically, at least.

Emotionally is another matter. I have cancer. “The Big C”, as one well-wisher put it in a welcome how-can-I-help e-mail. Cancer, a word some still utter in hushed tones, as if giving it full volume makes it more real. Cancer.

Oh, I know it’s not a death sentence these days, at least not the variety that has seen fit to invade my body: invasive ductal carcinoma, the most common form of breast cancer. I know about surgery options and treatment plans and survival rates. I know I’m far from the first woman to gear up for this particular battle, and I’m sorry to say I know I won’t be the last. And I know many, many other cancer patients are much worse off than I am.

But I also know that I will never be the same. Even after surgery and chemo and radiation and what I hope is a clean bill of health, I will never be the person I was before July 13, 2009. Even if I wanted to, I can’t turn back the clock and undo the fundamental shift that began when the radiologist opened the consultation room door for herself and a concerned-looking companion. (A word to the wise: You know it’s going to be a bad day when the doctor brings in a social worker for a post-exam chat. I’m just saying.)

The exact words the doctor used that day are forever lost in a blur of hospital gowns and ultrasound gel and post-biopsy instructions. But in an instant, everything changed.

My aha moment? Four days after being crushed by the news that the lump in my chest had tested positive for cancer, I was giddy to find out that, despite two positive lymph nodes, my bones, lungs and liver looked clear. Who would have thought I’d ever be happy to have “only” breast cancer?

I’m sure it sounds cliché, but it’s also reality. Cancer has changed my perspective—on everything from modesty (Anyone want to see my boobs? C’mon, everyone else has!) to marriage (Does it really matter who unloads the dishwasher?). And I’m not sure I would go back in time if I could.

Things I took for granted before have never seemed more significant. I’m a word person, and I can’t find ones powerful enough to describe the love and support I’ve been getting from my husband, my parents, my siblings and my dear friends who are like family to me. It’s humbling.

Then there’s my extended network of friends—people I met through work or the neighborhood association or volunteer service—who’ve heard the news and reached out to let me know they’ve been there or know someone who has and that it’s going to be OK. I’m counting on that.

And work? It’s still important, but I’m not going to confuse what I do with who I am anymore. In nearly 20 years as a journalist, I’ve given up Sunday dinners and well-earned days off to chase a story. I’ve put off graduate school and even parenthood to keep my eye on a prize that I’d be hard-pressed to even identify now. No more. That deadline that kept me awake a month ago is still looming, but it’s not the reason I wake up in a cold sweat these days.•

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Davis is associate editor of IBJ. Chris Katterjohn’s column will resume in two weeks.

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