Cancer Lesson #57: Welcome to the Sisterhood

Cancer Lesson #57: Welcome to the Sisterhood.

I’m not talking about that group that passes around those traveling pants (which is really too bad — with my Anastrazole and post-menopausal weight gain, I could use a pair of jeans like that).

Nor does this Sisterhood have anything to do with “doing it for ourselves,” though this hymn to our gender’s strength and beauty is a good thing to keep in mind when dealing with what is primarily a women’s disease.

This Sisterhood is one to which you already belong. You became a member the moment you were diagnosed, whether it was this morning or many years ago. You’ve earned your stripes or are earning them. You’ve paid your dues or will pay them. You’re one of us, part of the sisterhood of survivors.

It would be great if our group was more exclusive, with fewer members, but we’re everywhere.

Sigh.

My initiation happened at a garage sale, one of the few I went to while in treatment. If you know me at all, you know that statement alone tells you how narrow my focus was the spring and summer after my surgery.

“Are you in the Sisterhood?” asked the woman running the sale.

“Sisterhood?” Since I was bald as a cue ball, I knew her question probably had something to do with cancer.

“You in chemo?”

“Yep.”

“Well, welcome to the sisterhood. I’m two years out and counting.” She introduced herself, shook my hand, and gave me a hug.

Being part of the Sisterhood is a little like being pregnant. I can remember my big-bellied self sharing secret smiles with similarly bell-shaped women, knowing we were each part of the miracle of new life. But the survivor network is more subtle, with women and men who have dealt with the disease seeking you out to welcome you into the fold.

I was coming out of Starbucks one day when a woman whipped off her ball cap, pointed to her head and asked, “Are you bald for the same reason I am?”

I admitted I was, we compared notes on treatment and then parted, each wishing the other well.

And, although this post is about the Sisterhood, it’s also a reminder of the vast family of co-survivors – the husbands, daughters, mothers, sisters and friends who have struggled through this disease along with a loved one.

In an earlier piece, I wrote about two men who spoke to me, with tears in their eyes about their wives’ triumph over cancer. Another male acquaintance, who lost his wife to breast cancer, told me she died because she didn’t seek treatment soon enough. In sharing this tragic story, I sensed he was honoring her battle.

My oddest experience with the “family” occurred one weekend when my husband and I flew to Port Clinton Airport for a fly-in breakfast.

Their EAA chapter is rebuilding an old Ford T-Motor (Tin Goose) airplane. This project is particularly appropriate because from the 30s through the 80s, one of these lovely planes delivered people and freight between the islands of Lake Erie and the mainland. I remember seeing the aircraft when I first began visiting the area – a lovely place where a day away feels like a weekend. (Go here for more information on the islands: http://www.shoresandislands.com and here for more information about the plane: http://www.tingoose.org/aboutus.html).

Anyway, The Engineer and I were speaking to a man about the restoration when another man came up and said, “I think I know you. Didn’t you write that blog about getting your head shaved at Oshkosh?”

We eventually sorted out that he meant the post where seventeen men got their heads shaved as a show of support.

Wow. He had actually read my blog.

This was weird. The aviation community can be small, but how could this man – whom I’d never met – recognize me from a posting that was read by a couple hundred people at most?

“How did you find that post?” I asked.

It turned out he was friends with a Continental pilot (this was before they became United) who forwarded it to him. Her name was Renee something. Perhaps I knew her?

I shook my head. The only Continental pilot I know is male and wasn’t there for the great shave-off.

It doesn’t matter. The point is, this gentleman read and remembered the post because his wife is a breast cancer survivor.

He’s part of the family too.

And though I know not one of us would wish for you to go through this experience, we receive you with open arms and open hearts.

Welcome to the Sisterhood. May you find strength in knowing you are not alone.

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Cancer Lesson #25: The Wearing of the Pink

 Cancer Lesson #25: The Wearing of the Pink

I’m not a high-heels-and-ruffles girly-girl, so when my daughter was young, I refused to dress her in pink. To me, this custom sent the wrong message.  “To be a real girl,” it seemed to say,  “you have to wear pink and play with dolls.”  

I didn’t want to foist those expectations upon her, and even as an adult, I rarely wore pink myself.

Thus, it felt strange at first to be associated with the “Pink Ribbon Disease,” especially when people began leaping to the conclusion that any pink clothing I wore was meant to remind them of breast cancer.

That wasn’t the case, at least not at first.

Later, after I lost my hair, I often wore pink as a kind of shorthand for “Yes, I’m temporarily bald because I’m in chemo for breast cancer.” It staved off a lot of questions.

 By then, I had learned wearing pink can be demonstration of love. 

As a cancer patient – and it took some time to adjust to being in that category – I was stunned by the outpouring of friendship I received, often when I least expected it.

“The Wearing of the Pink” was one of those times.

A little background first. When I got cancer, I was in the process of changing jobs. At my request, the library’s administration had agreed to allow me to step down from management back into front-line librarianship. This decision was made about a week before my diagnosis.

Yeah, I know. Pretty fortuitous for all of us.

Anyway, just before my medical leave began, my staff asked me to make sure I was in the branch at a certain time. I agreed, figuring they’d planned a little send-off involving cake, a card, and perhaps some balloons.

What they did was so much more meaningful.

Everyone in the building, including the men, wore pink ribbons, and most were dressed in shades of the color.

The memory still brings tears to my eyes.

There wasn’t one cake; there were three – four if you count the cheesecake – and in my book, cheesecake always counts. Plus enough food to have fed the horde of teens that normally descends on the library after school. Oh, and there were cookies and brownies (York Peppermint ones!) for those who didn’t care for cake. Margaritas too – the virgin version, alas (after all, this was in a public library) – served in real Margarita glasses.

I was staggered. Literally overwhelmed. My co-workers’ outpouring of support, on top of all the cards, emails, prayers, positive Reiki energy and other forms of good karma I’d received, made me suddenly so tired that I had to sit down.

I needed a nap, and when I went home – having tasted all the cakes, cookies and brownies – I had one. I slumbered deep, with a sense of gratitude permeating every pore. How blessed I was (and still am) to have such friends and co-workers, how fortunate to have had my husband, daughter and family as I approached the challenge of cancer.

Nothing I can do or say could ever adequately express my appreciation. So I will say again, as I did then, “Thank you” to everyone who was there for my family and me.

You know who you are.

Addendum: There are legitimate arguments about the way pink has been used to market breast cancer support and research, and about the way some companies have appropriated the color to make money. This posting, however, is not about buying a t-shirt or running in a race, it’s about how my friends who adopted a well-known symbol to support me when I was in treatment.