My sister asked me an interesting question recently: Should she think of me as someone who has cancer, or as someone who had cancer?

It’s a big distinction, one that will be on my mind during National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. (Trust me, this year I’m aware.) I’ve even found myself dragged into little debates about it.

My feeling is this: Why would I be undergoing all the arduous side-effects of chemotherapy if I didn’t still worry there might be cancer lurking in me somewhere? I had a mastectomy in June, and there is a very good chance surgery alone cured me. But since I don’t know that — and in fact have no way of knowing that — I’m enduring six cycles of toxins designed to hunt down any possible remaining microscopic cancer cell.

A friend likens chemo to tracking down some World War Two Japanese soldier living alone on a little Pacific island who hasn’t heard the homeland surrendered. He needs to be told the war’s over.

Yet when I tell people I *have* breast cancer, I’ve actually been corrected.

“HAD cancer!” interrupted one breast-cancer survivor I spoke with. “You HAD cancer.” It seemed very important to her that I adopt this point of view. When I mentioned my view of  chemotherapy being a crucial part of an ongoing battle, she was having none of it. “The chemo is just preventative,” she said, fairly adamantly.

Umm…no. No, it’s not. The estrogen-suppressing medication I will take when I finish with chemotherapy is preventative, designed to “starve” my estrogen-receptor-positive form of cancer. But the crapola I’m taking now? It could well be fighting the main fight, and that main fight may still going on.

When I was first diagnosed with breast cancer, I heard through the grapevine that modern chemotherapy shouldn’t be feared as some kind of horrible prison sentence. “She worked every day through her chemo,” I heard about at least two women. I think people told me this to cheer me up. Instead, I ended up feeling intimidated. Had the bar for the modern breast cancer patient been set that high?

One of these hard-working women sent word through a mutual friend that she’d love to talk to me, and that I could give her a call when I was ready.

I didn’t at first. She’d had a very different kind of surgical experience, so I didn’t feel much need to touch base with her when I was recuperating from mine.

But midway through the hard “crash days” of my second round of chemo, as I was preparing to return to work, I finally reached out. “I heard you worked every day through chemo. How did you do that?,” I asked. “And why did you do that?”

Her answer: “Because I was stupid!”


She said there were several times when she was so tired she wanted to leave work, but stayed because she was simply too tired to walk to the elevator.

That’s not good. There is nothing to be gained by exhausting yourself. And even though most of us aren’t brain surgeons or air traffic controllers, the work we all do is important. Why work when you’re so tired you start making mistakes?

Of course, some people have no choice. They don’t get paid if they don’t work, so they muddle through chemo, dragging themselves to their jobs. It can be done, I guess.

Even before I heard the reality of my friend’s “work-every-day-through-chemo” experience, I had already decided that didn’t sound sensible for me. I told my bosses that while I was anxious to get back to work — I missed it desperately during my recuperation from surgery — I had no intention of going for any kind of Perfect Attendance Award. Through a combination of disability, vacation days and working from home, I hope to fashion a schedule that keeps me a productive — but safe — employee.

Athletes napping between events at the Highland Games. Less useful at the office, though.

I’ve been back in the office three days now. The first two went well. The third saw me napping on the photo editor’s futon by 3 p.m. Clearly I have to monitor my energy more carefully. That’s hard during chemo, when it seems as if every day brings something different.

I was secretly relieved to learn tales of chemo Superwomen might be a little more complicated than the grapevine relayed. And that I wasn’t being a wimp for feeling unable to clear that very high bar.

And as that mid-afternoon nap showed, even a medium-high bar may be unclearable on some days.

I get that many of my fellow breast-cancer patients place great stock in being positive, in being hopeful. And don’t worry, I don’t spend my days hanging my head, obsessed that I have cancer. I’m positive. I’m hopeful.

Yet I also know this is a mean, mean enemy that kills 40,000 women a year. So for now, I intend to squint through the crosshairs, keeping all weapons trained on it. I’m going to be as vigilant as possible, and for me at least, that means assuming I may *have* cancer. For isn’t there a danger of letting down your guard if you think the cancer’s all gone?

One thing I’ve learned, however, is there are as many different ways to react to breast cancer as there are annual cases. (Which is to say roughly 200,000.) Your friend who underwent breast-cancer surgery may freak out if you say she *has* it. I thought it was exceptionally insightful of my sister to ask my preference — and to be willing to abide by it, at least in conversations with me.

At one of my check-ups with my plastic surgeon, I referred to myself as “supposedly healthy.”

He was quick to interrupt: “You are healthy,” he insisted. “You are healthy.”

Now that’s a correction I’ll gratefully accept.

So in answer to my sister’s question, this is how I see myself: I’m a healthy person who is working hard to make sure I’m rid of some cancer.

Since June, WVFC  has been honored to share the musings of Kathleen O’Brien, a journalist for three decades with the Newark Star Ledger, as she began her blog about her journey through breast cancer, entitled We’ll Know More on Monday. As Breast Cancer Awareness Month begins, we thank her for giving us permission to post both those and her observations about the realities of the illness.

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