Monday, August 26, 2013

Why I Hike (aka Thinking Before Pinking)

One of the major paradoxes of the public discourse around breast cancer is that there are so many awareness campaigns and precious little actual awareness. I will admit that did not know before being diagnosed that chemo renders young women infertile—a devastating dimension of loss for many—or that hormone treatments that deprive the body of estrogen go on for five or ten years. Or that breast cancer that spreads beyond the breast is not curable.

When we see taxis, frying pans, cosmetics, even NFL players’ cleats swathed in bubble-gum tones, one could be forgiven for thinking that breast cancer is “no big deal” anymore. That we’ve got it all solved. A pink ribbon like a badge of honor over your lumpectomy scar, some sisterhood cheers and we’re all good. I’ve heard a few people say, “No one dies from breast cancer anymore.”

But there you’d be wrong. Forty thousand women in the U.S. die from breast cancer every year. That’s more than the entire population of the town I grew up in. That’s more than the undergraduate enrollment at the very large UC campuses I attended. That’s many thousands more than total automobile fatalities or gun deaths each year (both statistics hover around 33,000). It’s more than the 38,000 suicides that constitute a major public health crisis. And this 40,000 represents almost entirely women. From where I sit, it feels like a plague.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

L'Dor V'Dor

This week was Nathan’s ninth birthday, and what he wanted to do on that Tuesday morning, the last day before the start of school, was to go to open a bank account. He’s been saving his allowance, afikoman prize money, and birthday-card dollar bills since kindergarten and now he was excited to start a real bank account with an even $100. He broke open his froggy bank (froggy, not piggy, in our house), I relieved him of about $20 worth of parking-meter coins, and we set off on foot to the Wells Fargo a few blocks away on Geary.

As we walked, I had an intense memory of the first time I opened my own bank account, at a similar age, with all my savings. I was with my mother in a large-windowed, midcentury bank in Palm Springs, looking down at the brown, lattice-print carpet as I waited impatiently in line with my change and crumpled bills. I loved watching the teller count it all and meticulously enter the numbers in my savings book. She asked me what I was saving for, and I very earnestly said, “college.” I didn’t understand why she laughed hard when I said that; it was perfectly true.

Nathan was just as full of anticipation and giddy while handing over his “own” money to the teller. I thought it was great that the thing he wanted most for his birthday was not a gift, but this experience of relishing a new sense of maturity. But the most poignant thing about it for me was this perception of the two dimensions of time: watching your child do things that you did yourself at their age, that you can remember with every scent and tactile detail, must be counted as one of the greatest pleasures of being a parent.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

The Two Realities

Birkat Ha-Gomel, pronounced at the time of an aliyah to the Torah, is a blessing that one may recite after recovering from childbirth or from a serious illness, or upon returning from a long journey. After both my children were born, it was significant to me to come to synagogue and “bench gomel” to acknowledge the intense joy of bearing a healthy infant and not having had any complications. The way that the blessing links recovery from illness and returning from a long trip (while I don’t think jet lag quite rises to the same level of challenge as giving birth) is perceptive in that any process of healing is a journey, one in which each person hopes to “cross over” back into the realm of health.

If someone is undergoing heart surgery, once they are “in the clear” it might be time to take them off the Misheberach list, and a chance to bench gomel, but what happens with cancer? There is rarely a definable end-point. The sense of being “in the clear” is both elusive and deceptive.

Just as I haven’t known how to answer the question, sometimes explicitly or implicitly posed to me or to Micah, of when one should stop saying the Misheberach for me, I have not been able to come to shul to bench gomel. The disease is not “over,” and it is hard to know when it might be possible to acknowledge a return to wellness.

Likewise, I let my blog go silent for a long time. After chemo ended in September of last year, I had a strong desire to regain some normalcy. I really, really wanted to stop talking about cancer. I also didn’t know how public I wanted to be about my continuing treatment; I hadn’t come to terms with it myself. But ultimately, I think that silence can do more to raise anxiety than to settle it. You can only stifle the truth for so long.