An Imperfect Year
When pruning a limb from the Tree of Life, good friends are just what the doctor ordered
By Amy Lyon
Ten years ago, I was diagnosed with breast cancer after having recently moved to Wilmington from Massachusetts. Over the next year, I divided my treatment between Boston, where I went for lumpectomy surgery, and Wilmington, where I underwent chemotherapy and radiation. Wilmington embraced me in ways I never expected, making me one of its own. I kept a journal during that imperfect year and turned it into a memoir. What follows are excerpts from my story.
It’s a balmy autumn day, and I’ve just picked up an old friend at the airport who has flown in for the Cucalorus Film Festival, when my cellphone rings. I pull over, since it’s probably Dr. Elizabeth Weinberg with the biopsy results.
“I’m very surprised,” she says. “It’s a small tumor. You’re going to be fine.”
I hear the words, but they don’t penetrate. I don’t know what to feel. I’ve never received news like this. I have breast cancer. My worst nightmare had come true. I’m far from home and sick.
Jonathan (my husband) and I go to see Dr. Weinberg. In the waiting room colors are brighter, noises are louder — everything looks and feels different from when we were here last week. Normal is no longer normal. Dr. Weinberg defines tubular breast cancer as “old-lady cancer, which is a good thing because it’s treatable and slow-growing.”
Did she just call me old?
She has other good news. Because I’m well-endowed, if I have a lumpectomy it should hardly be noticeable. I shouldn’t even need reconstructive surgery! Reconstructive surgery? What? I’m in shock.
I dive headlong into the film festival, traipse from Thalian Hall, to Jengo’s Playhouse, to the stately Masonic Theater and Level 5 bar with its sweeping views of the Cape Fear River.
My new state feels surreal, as if it is all just a movie. Take 1: Camera pans over a healthy-looking 50-year-old on a bar stool, hair flowing in the breeze, phone balanced on her shoulder, foot swaying, as she scribbles recommended doctors’ names in the margins of a colorful Wilmington tourist map. Almost every movie mentions cancer.
Jonathan and I sit on Wrightsville Beach under a Carolina blue sky eating tuna tacos. Surfers slice through curling waves. A squadron of pelicans glide in formation. I drag my hand through the fine sand.
If this cancer goes untreated, I’ll die. Even if treated, I might still die.
I call Patricia, who’s 10 years breast cancer-free. Patricia’s got both sides of the Mason-Dixon in her, a Southerner by birth with a mother from Boston; she’s got that Southern graciousness with a shot of Northern directness. With a reassuring voice she lists all the reasons why I’m going to be OK.
Cucalorus is over. No more slouching in darkened theaters. While I walk home from the last movie, a friend drives by. She beeps, rolls down her window.
“Hey!” I bellow, “I’m going to be away for a while! I have breast cancer!” I sound like I’m leaving for a Caribbean cruise.
We are back in Wilmington after surgery and six weeks of recovery at my brother’s home in Boston. I feel like I’m in a museum of where we used to live, who I used to be. There’s a deep comfort in being home. I wake early and it flutters inside, this gladness. I feel it as we amble along the Riverwalk. The river churns quietly, shadows of tall grasses undulate on its surface. A lone duck paddles by. I drive for the first time since surgery, up Oleander past a line of massive magnolias, deep green waxy leaves swaying.
Sandra and Alex, her miniature Schnauzer, are visiting. Sandra is another of Wilmington’s new gifts. She rang my bell holding a quiche from Jester’s Café and now checks in on me regularly. I stroke Alex’s silky gray hair; my spirits lift.
We met Dr. John Anagnost, my oncologist, an energetic man with kind eyes and a quick smile. Even though recent studies have shown that four chemotherapy treatments are probably as effective as six, he’s not yet convinced. Six it is then — one every three weeks.
Steve runs the salon out of his antebellum home on Chestnut Street. Sandra and Alex bring me to get my hair cut, less to fall out during chemotherapy. As an act of solidarity, Sandra also gets a pixie cut. She’s quite handsome with her salt-and-pepper do. Steve’s mother had breast cancer — twice. He won’t let me pay him. It’s about the people (and the dogs), isn’t it?
A cadre of friends has offered to make meals, led by Stephanie, who has been in Wilmington for 20 years, originally from Worcester, Massachusetts, like my father’s family. She feels like family. I’m learning how to say thank you, to receive, since I’m in no position to give back. I’m surrounded by unconditional giving.
I’m in a recliner in the chemotherapy infusion room, drugged on Oxycodone and Ativan. The IV is attached to the port in my arm. The nurse starts the drip of drugs. So it begins.
I feel like a poisoned blowfish. Stephanie drops off a meal. Sally brings flowers and tells me that no matter what happens I’m going to be OK. Sandra comes over. Alex sits in my lap.
I’ve emerged from the brambly thicket of chemo 1. We picnic at Fort Fisher on a windswept peak where Civil War soldiers once stood guard under the scrub pines. We’re sentries searching for our future.
I think of this experience as a pruning of a diseased branch on my tree of life. There’s a simplified sense of priority and focus — only one problem to solve, ridding my body of cancer.
It’s three days after chemo 2. The stubbly ends of my hair are falling out. Everything tastes like soap. My neck and upper body are tender to the touch. I’m dizzy and my head feels full of fuzz. I mix up my words. My body feels like wet concrete.
Pam, a soft-spoken woman with a wild artistic brush who paints dreamscapes, delivers salmon and roasted vegetables. Four years ago she had ovarian cancer.
“I was amazed how loved I was,” she says. “It changed me, softened me. I haven’t forgotten.”
Downtown at the Village Market I buy The New York Times. Majoub’s son recently had cancer. He tells me to smile, pray, eat local honey, fresh ginger, and garlic.
Cancer treatment is a mix of science, art, intuition and luck.
Chemo brain is real. I start a thought and it trails off. One idea morphs into another. It hurts to think.
The azaleas are blooming. Daylight lingers till 8 p.m. Windows are thrown open. We eat at Jester’s Java, pimento cheese sandwiches and sweet tea. Half the neighborhood is there. Spring!
I’m in the chair for chemo 6. The moment I sit down, I relax. Brittany attaches the lines to the port in my arm. I’m teary with relief. This day is an ending.
We meet Dr. Patrick Maguire, my radiologist. I’m to have 30 blasts, 23 on my breast and collarbone, and seven directly on the cancer site. When we emerge from the meeting, I’m riled up from all this talk of life and death and of neutrons that will be shot into my body.
A coastal storm blows. Metal gray clouds ruthlessly shove the white billowy ones out to sea. A maelstrom of rain and thunder runs over Wilmington, punctuated by streaks of vertical and horizontal lightning. It wets the wetness of the sea, mats the manes of dogs, matches the mood of my soul.
A team of technicians create a rigid plaster mold that I’ll lie in during radiation treatment. I’m on my left side, head turned to the left, right arm draped over right ear — a Greek goddess in repose.
My hair’s sprouting! I spend a great deal of time rubbing the fuzz, luxuriating in its sheer presence.
With the help of two technicians, I squirm to fit into my mold until the red crossbeam from the machine lines up perfectly across my breast. To relax I count. One Mississippi, Two Mississippi, Three Mississippi . . . Treatment takes a very long 10 minutes.
Every day at the clinic I whip out my breast as if it’s a hand to shake. I’m tired of this. My breast is too. Seven more to go.
For the very last time, I walk past the monitors, down the hall, into the treatment room. I cozy up in my mold. The technicians line me up. The machine kicks on and I hear the familiar buzz of neutrons shooting into my breast. Enter me. Heal me.
“You’re done!” the technician announces.
In the dressing room I rip off the purple robe and cry. On my way out I’m handed a bouquet of purple, blue and white balloons.
Jonathan and I drive to the beach. The ocean’s calm, transparent. We stand in the surf, cool on our feet. I unwind the ribbons from my wrist and release the balloons. They bounce along on invisible waves of wind, up, up and away. The blues recede, shrink, until only tiny specks. Then, nothing.
“Make a wish,” my husband says.
That’s easy, I think.
“Please, God, let it all have worked.”
Amy Lyon is the author of The Couple’s Business Guide, How to Start and Grow a Small Business Together, and a cookbook, In A Vermont Kitchen. She works in sales at Merriam-Webster, Inc. To read her full memoir, contact her at email@example.com. October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month.