Saturday, November 06, 2004

Healing Elizabeth Edwards

I have breast cancer. Last year I was diagnosed, underwent surgery, and survived chemotherapy. For the next four years I will continue to take a daily pill, an aromatase inhibitor, to counter the deadly natural hormones produced by my own glands, my diet and my environment. As far as we know, all the cancerous cells were removed from my body and have not returned. Even if they never return, please God, I will spend the rest of my days living with breast cancer.

Despite a common misconception, there is no known cure for breast cancer. There are diagnostic tools and treatments that reduce the likelihood of recurrence. Early diagnosis helps but is no guarantee that the cancer will be eradicated permanently. Some individual cancers are more stubborn than others. Thus far science has offered no clear explanation why.

Elizabeth Edwards was dealt two harsh blows this week and I can assure you which is the worst. She seems blessed with the support system and material resources she will need to confront an enemy more vicious than any in the political arena. As the mother of young children, her challenge will be especially difficult as she faces the options of surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, the temporary loss of her hair, the permanent loss of her breast, disfigurement. She will need every bit of the strength she has demonstrated on the campaign trail.

Chemotherapy is definitely not funny business. The chemo drugs I took were, I was told, originally developed to treat other conditions but were pulled from the market due to their toxicity. One of the most commonly prescribed, Adriamycin, is as red as Hawaiian Punch and so nasty that I still shudder involuntarily when I see liquids that color. Heart damage is only one of its potential side effects. When it is administered intravenously, the nurses have to be scrupulously careful as a leak would cause severe skin burns tantamount to a Hazardous Materials event.

During one of my sessions in the chemo corner of my oncologist's suite, I read something that made me want to laugh out loud but I could not. I was one of several cancer patients there and some of them were in a very bad way. We had comfy recliners, jars of hard candy, a water cooler, microwave, TV and magazines. The candy was to camouflage the vile taste chemotherapy leaves in your mouth. I sat with my devoted Luis on one side and my I. V. hookup on the other.

About halfway through my three-hour treatment after the initial dizziness and blurry vision subsided, I noticed on the table next to me a large print edition of Reader's Digest featuring an article by Tucker Carlson. Here is the excerpt that triggered a fit of stifled giggles:

One of my biggest problems on live TV is that I’ve long been prone to inappropriate laughter. In the fall of 2002, what turned out to be a pair of snipers roamed the Washington area murdering strangers for no apparent reason. One night that fall, when I was co-hosting Crossfire, we interviewed a retired D.C. homicide detective named Ted Williams. The day before a middle-aged woman had been shot dead at a Home Depot in suburban Virginia. Williams made the point that her death had been particularly tragic, as the woman had recently overcome breast cancer. At least I think that’s what he tried to say. What emerged his mouth was something about her having had breast implants.

There’s nothing funny about murder, obviously. I struggled to keep myself under control, fighthing for calm as my chest heaved. I bit the inside of my lip, lowered my head and tried to take deep breaths through my nose. The crisis past.

Okay, agreed. There's nothing funny about murder. Or breast cancer. But I had to concur with Tucker that Williams' malapropism was hilarious, even as I was getting pumped with poison because of breast cancer.

Maybe my humor is not to everyone's liking, but any brand will do in a crisis. Humor helped me maintain perspective during a time distorted by unnatural self-absorption, fear and insecurity.

Since my diagnosis and throughout my treatment, I learned a lot about myself, my family and friends, my character and my priorities. I have already written about the unexpected blessing cancer has been in my life. May Elizabeth Edwards find it so as well. I wish her faith for the trials ahead, courage to live each day to the fullest, laughter to lighten her load, doctors who are brilliant and kind, the love of friends, the love of family, the love of God, and the love of a good man.

No comments: