Today, April 15, is the 21st anniversary of my breast cancer diagnosis. My 1986 novelette "Surviving" is about a girl raised by chimps; my 1988 novella "Tiny Tango" (written in August 1987) is about a woman's struggle to survive AIDS; yet both strike me now--and have for a long time--as fearfully prescient. Especially "Tiny Tango," which I began while nearly crippled with sourceless-seeming anxiety, a few months before finding the lump under my left arm.
After the diagnosis came the usual: mastectomy and six brutal months of chemo. I was Stage II Breast CA; the tumor had been concealed by a mass of fibrocystic tissue and was both impalpable and invisible to mammography until it had grown and begun to spread. By the time it was detected, six axillary lymph nodes were involved, and the prognosis was, to put it mildly, not good.
There was no internet in those days but my oncologist provided me with lots to read, and not one bit of it offered much encouragement; in fact my husband and I were shocked again and again to discover just how dire the picture was. When people heard about it, their most frequent response was, Oh, they can do such miracles with cancer nowadays. That's what we'd thought too, but in fact breast
cancer survival rates hadn't changed in fifty years. And survival at six years with six nodes was 50%.
So how come I only am escaped alone to tell thee? (That's Ishmael in Moby-Dick
, you landlubbers, quoting Job.)
Nobody knows why some people are long-term survivors of cancer. But in the early days, what cheered me up most was stories about people who had
survived for many years, so I'll put my story out there too, for anybody who might be cheered up to hear it.
Very early on--after the surgery, but before chemo had started--a friend sent me a copy of Getting Well Again
, by Carl and Stephanie Simonton. (The friend is a long-term survivor of leukoplakia, a form of mouth cancer, though in 1988 he was only a couple of years past his own diagnosis.) The book describes the Simontons' pioneering experiments with visualization, the mental rehearsal of little PacMan icons chomping away at cancer cells. There was some attempt to guess why this approach seemed to prolong survival, but the mind-body connection as a concept was in its infancy then, and the medical profession had little use for it.
My husband, Ted Irving, beside himself with worry, also dismissed the Simontons as voodoo practitioners; but I devoured the book and knew at once that this was something I could use. The image I came up with, after some trial and error, was of a beehive. The honeycomb represented my cells. The bees were my immune system. Invading mites, disease organisms, and other bees were cancer cells that the bees attacked ferociously, stung to death, and expelled from the hive. At that point I had not yet become a real-life beekeeper, but I'd read a lot about how it was done and seen programs on TV. Beginning at once, I meditated twice a day for 30 minutes on this image. Before long I had settled into a sort of poem-cum-formula to guide the imagery. (Brief excerpt: If a cell is damaged / The honeybees repair it; / If a cell is dangerous / The honeybees remove and destroy the danger.
) I kept up these twice-daily meditation sessions for six or seven years, at which point I seemed to know that once a day was enough; after that I meditated on beehives every evening for another five or six years--straight through and beyond Ted's own illness and death in 1998, from lung cancer--and then wrote a poem that changed the imagery, and stopped.
So, first line of defense was visualization a la Simonton. Second was Ted, the thought of leaving whom was unendurable. Third was access to cutting-edge treatment.
We consulted a world-class cancer specialist at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania for a second opinion on my treatment protocols, and this guy recommended a meaner regimen, for patients with more than four positive nodes, than the one that was then standard: Adreomycin instead of Methatrexate, oral Cytoxin instead of Cytoxin via IV. My oncologist, Dave Henry, who btw is the most fanatical Trekker I have ever known, had been this expert's student and willingly accepted his recommendations, which have proved out over time ("Adreo" IS the standard nowadays). And Dave is still my oncologist. As of my last appointment he could hardly wait for the new Star Trek movie to be released; he planned to be in the theater, with his medical-student son, the very day it opened.
Of course I can't prove that any of the above accounts for my survival. Still, twenty-one years. I always observe the day.