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October 1, 2007

The Breast Cancer Club

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At only two months post-diagnosis and still emotionally vulnerable from the mastectomy and a second surgery on her lymph nodes, Robin wanted the other women to like her. They were her living proof that she would make it through. This is probably the most vital aspect of support groups: They remind you that you are more than your disease; you're still who you were before your diagnosis. The trouble is, you are and you're not. This is the schizoid trick that cancer plays. Because the club tends to focus on women regaining their precancer appearance (same breasts, same hair), the implication is that they should regain the same emotional lives as well.

Except cancer changes everything. It's a tsunami that blows the lids off any internal, emotional boxes (and if a woman was living with those boxes packed safely away, cancer will wash them to the fore). She'll be facing more than cancer: She'll be facing every unsaid sentiment, every buried resentment, every tucked-away wound, now raw and ready for reckoning.

For Robin and me, our 14 years had merged us to the point of feeling like we shared one central nervous system. This is safety and this is suffocation, and cancer, sadly, magnified the latter. Yet how do you "fight it out" when one of you is sick? There's a profound imbalance in every interaction — "but I'm sick" being murmured at the edges of every conversation, debate, attempt at reconciliation, short-circuiting them all. So you stuff, you suffer. The club doesn't know what to do about this, nor did we. Ultimately, our relationship didn't make it.

We've got to talk about more than cancer with cancer. As long as it is held up primarily as a medical and cosmetic condition to overcome — and the psychological scars are discussed only in terms of the physical — survivors and their loved ones will suffer.

I hope in the future we can make room for the real complexity of cancer — and for the bald women, the angry women, the flat-chested women, the anti-sisterhood women, as well as the women who need to mourn their breasts. I hope the club (and really, we're all in the club) opens up to the women whose sexuality was forever changed or lost — who can, and want to, live with that. Most of all, I hope it will welcome any woman who doesn't want her journey, her reality, to be "my secret" any longer.

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