A woman who contacted me a while back asking for help in writing her book, has since been diagnosed with pre-cancer. She called me in tears two weeks ago to tell me the best cancer specialist at her hospital says her only option is to let them cut off her breast.
I only met Daisy once, at a local pie restaurant. She’s a lovely, pretty, articulate woman of 45. Neither of us ate pie that day — she had a Diet Coke, and I had a mint tea, while she told me about her amazing life.
Daisy was born with part of a chromosome missing, and grew up being told she was “mentally retarded.” She eventually overcame that label. At 42, three years ago, she completed high school and won an award for her achievement. She writes compellingly about her struggle to stay out of institutions. She’s now a sought-after speaker, the next best thing to a celebrity.
She phones me as I’m paying for a muffin in a noisy Starbucks. It’s been a stressful day already, and this bad news hits me hard. I had been looking forward to getting to know Daisy, and helping her finish the book. I am upset to hear about this new setback, especially since Daisy cries through the entire phone call. I don’t know what to say, except “I think you need to get a second opinion.”
She says, “But should I let them cut off my breast?”
All I can think of to answer is, “You’re the Queen of your Universe. You decide.”
She seems to like that idea. She thanks me and hangs up.
Later I go online, and read a page by a woman doctor advising women with pre-cancer not to rush into mastectomy. I see there is some controversy, at least on the internet. I e-mail a mutual friend, an ex-nurse who knows Daisy well.
She writes back: “Daisy’s doctor is the best in his field, and even used to campaign for lumpectomy over mastectomy. If he says she needs it, I would go with that.” She explains that since Daisy has large breasts, the pre-cancer cells can’t be accessed any other way. So mastectomy really is the only solution.
It’s that cut and dried.
I’m disappointed but I thank her for clarifying the issues. After all, she is a nurse. How can you argue with such a professional, kind woman with decades of experience caring for the sick? But deep down, I’m angry with her, for bowing down to doctors. In my mind, she’s still a product of her nurse’s training with the nuns in the 1950s. But of course, I can’t say that. She’d never speak to me again!
The following week I get another call from Daisy — quite different from the last one. She’s feeling a lot stronger now, she says, since another nurse at the hospital told her if she doesn’t have this surgery, she will probably be dead in 5 years. On hearing this from the compassionate nurse, Daisy has realized her life is at stake. She’s decided to bite the bullet. No more crying all day, no feeling sorry for herself! She’s now looking at the bright side of this operation.
She tells me since she was diagnosed with pre-cancer, she has lost 11 pounds. In the second week, she’s started getting her appetite back, and going out for Diet Cokes with her friends, who tell her jokes because “laughter is the best medicine.”
She also tells me how grateful she is to this doctor, and all these nurses, for saving her life by telling her the truth.
As she talks, I’m getting a certain feeling I get when I watch Walt Disney movies. A sinking, hopeless feeling. An urge to put my hands over my ears, run away and hide. Or to shout out something mean, like: “Why be grateful? How many thousands is that doctor getting paid for this operation?”
But instead, I wish her the best. “Call me anytime!” I say. And I mean it, but –
I have another friend, Daisy’s age, with ovarian cancer who is now having chemotherapy. She’s doing well, they say. Her tumours are shrinking fast and she hasn’t lost her hair, but there again, I get this feeling… that her “positive attitude” is a great big facade. The last time I saw her, all she talked about was her chemo, and all the supplements she takes to counteract its effects, and how fantastically The Lost Book of Herbal well she feels, and and and –
And last week, I was cycling, and a woman about my age came up beside me on her bike. Her head was covered by a floppy hat, and her clothes were brightly coloured. I said, “You look like an artist!”
She said, “I was – but now I’m a full time breast cancer patient.” With one hand, she lifted her hat and showed me her nearly-bald head.
We came to a stop at a traffic light, and I told her about a herbal supplement called Swedish Bitters. “It will definitely boost your immune system.” I’m not a doctor. I’ve been told it’s actually illegal to tell people about alternative cancer therapies.
Yesterday on the internet, I googled “chemotherapy – dangers.” And read a lot about the cancer industry, much of it highly critical and disturbing. Then, as an afterthought, I googled “Diet Coke – breast cancer” and read that Aspartame, the artificial sweetener in Diet Coke, has been linked to a dramatic increase in breast cancer over the last few decades.
I was cycling home later, when Daisy called again. She wanted to know when we can meet, to work on her book — she needs my help dividing it into chapters. She sounded almost bubbly. Her surgery is set for October 11 — a month away. She’s been receiving so much support from her friends and family! She even got a phone call from Patch Adams, whom she met over the internet. Patch told her a joke that nearly made her laugh her head off, she says.
She tells me the joke, but I don’t get it. When she explains, I don’t find it funny. I say, “I never did see that movie about your frient, Patch.”
Then she reads me a lovely, caring e-mail she received from yet another nurse, a friend of our mutual friend. This woman wrote all the way from Calgary telling Daisy she is a wonderful, brave person, and that this is a difficult time, but when the surgery is over, she’ll be so much better off, and to be strong. This nurse does not even know Daisy, but she sends all her love and support.
Again, I have the urge to say something awful and inappropriate, like “That nurse’s business is comforting the sick and the dying. She gets those lines off the Hallmark cards she sends outto relatives of patients who don’t make it.”
My throat feels constricted. What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I summon a few heartfelt cliches to express how much I sympathize? Why can’t I say them, and mean them, like all these other people? I’m feeling speechless. In a weak, choked voice, I say: “Wow, are you ever lucky to have all these fans!”
I had been reading all afternoon about how mastectomy is not always effective in preventing cancer. And about how nutrition and other factors are ignored or downplayed, as anxious patients are pressured into agreeing to surgery and chemotherapy to avoid a death sentence. And about how cancer statistics are juggled to make it appear that medicine is winning the war, when in fact the cure rate has not changed in decades, and remains at about 33% — the same percentage as when cancer is left untreated.