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In Afteryears…
Diagnosis: Cancer

Like most of you, I paused at 40 to peer down the remaining slope of my life, then, after replacing my childhood dental fillings and acquiring graduated lenses in my glasses, blithely shoved off. Four years later, while adjusting to a blip in my career, celebrating my son’s passage from preschool to kindergarten, doing the usual amount of marriage work, and starting to wonder about roads not taken, I received a diagnosis of breast cancer. The approved treatment was the kind that comes with a special case worker at the health insurer and an annual reunion for the survivors. I’ve made it through two of those reunions and have every reason to hope for more; the first graduate of my hospital’s treatment program is five years out.

My husband and I commuted to doctors and had lunch together for three days a week or more for close to a year throughout my treatment and recovery. When my mother offered to take our son for a week or two that year to give us an extended vacation together, at first I couldn’t figure out why I wasn’t jumping at the offer. Then I realized we didn’t need the time; we had already become friends again.

Other people—mother, brother, friends—grew closer to me during my illness, and have spun loose again as time passes and I continue to be symptom-free. We could only sustain the kind of intensity that accompanies the possibility of loss for so long, but continue to benefit from a heightened sense of the here and now.

A kind of fearlessness with people came with the collapse of time. About four months after my diagnosis, I intervened in an episode of domestic violence on a public playground. In the middle of an escalating quarrel, a man knocked his companion down and pinned her to the sand under the swings. He had one hand on her throat, the other pulling her hair. She was screaming for help. I got up off the bench on which I was sitting, walked 20 feet with my eyes focused on his face, touched his arm, and asked him, quietly, to stop, because he was frightening the kids.

In my old life, I would have gone for help, as a friend sitting beside me did. But I just couldn’t wait. Besides, I figured the worst he would do would be to knock out my front teeth, and since I had already lost my hair to chemotherapy, another prosthesis didn’t seem like such a big deal. He backed off.

Because I live near San Francisco, because I am a child of the sixties, I suppose because I was an anthropology major at Yale, and in no small part because Chinese medicine might prolong my life, Buddhist philosophy, chi geung, acupuncture, and herbs beckon to me. But I’m realistic about how far into these traditions I’m likely to be able to travel in a short period of time. For now, I am simply pleased that I can call on visualization and meditation when I need to remember who and where I am, and to slow down my life.

I have returned to work full tilt, but for four days a week. I’ve achieved the balance I always longed for, although it is amazingly difficult to keep the extra time focused on my well-being.

Last week in one of our regular before-bedtime chats, my nine-year-old son volunteered that he is no longer afraid to grow up. He explained that he now anticipates that by the time he’s a teenager, and he has to leave us, he’ll be confident enough to do so. He used the word “confident.” “No hurry,” I said, “we can wait until you go to college. We have time.” the end


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