Chapter 1: Just a Zit
When Janet first felt the lump in her breast, she didn't tell me and didn't do anything about it for two months. She wasn't especially worried because her yearly mammograms had always been normal. And we were so busy, me with my strips, she finishing her new book for teens, Death Is Hard to Live With.
It wasn't until a letter arrived from a young reader, thanking Janet for her book on teen pregnancy, that she decided to act.
Janet didn't have a regular doctor because she'd always been healthy. For any checkups, she went to her friend Virginia, a physician's assistant. But Virginia was in the midst of moving and so she recommended an MD who examined Janet and sent her for a mammogram.
The letter from the breast diagnostic institute, which provided the results, said they'd found some irregularity. Included with their report was a list of recommended surgeons. Janet chose one who was on her insurance plan and went in for a biopsy.
I remember clearly that it was a bright, sunny day when we made our way to the hospital for the results. Janet talked about the two other women from her writers' group who had already been diagnosed with cancer.
The surgeon met us in a busy and narrow corridor just off the main lobby. There, opposite the cashier's office, he gave us the bad news...and rushed off. His abruptness was so unnerving we could hardly absorb the diagnosis.
We left the hospital looking for a lighthearted way to talk about information that was too new, too scary, too shocking to face directly.
Janet didn't seem to have a self-pity gene. First she minimized the cancer. She wrote in her diary that week, "I am bummed out!" Then she got angry at the universe and moved into a practical high gear. She spread her net wide, looking up organizations, experts, and publications, familiarizing herself with the disease.
She also called friends who tried different ways of cheering her up.
A few days later we met with the surgeon, who recommended a mastectomy. He said he knew Janet would grieve for her breast and be anxious for reconstruction. Janet and I resented his paternalism and his assumptions. We left determined to find a different surgeon, one she could relate to.
Janet again called her friend Virginia.
"I met Janet at a women's health conference in '85. I loved her sexy joie de vivre and we became buddies. We used to compare notes on boyfriends and the question of having children.
"She said to me, 'Remember, kid, you can't go by conventional guidelines. You and I live on the fringes.'
"Janet had the body arrogance of the very healthy. Illness happened to other people. When she called, her tone was flip. But I knew her well enough to know that the diagnosis had been a real kick in the head."
"Janet was charming, positive, and obviously comfortable with me. Some women are overwhelmed by their cancer. She was herself overwhelming. I was won over.
"We had a breast cancer chat. Her tumor was large-ish, she was small-breasted, and the margins around the tumor had tested positive, so we decided on mastectomy.
"We also discussed cosmetic surgery, which Janet rejected.
"When I operated I had found that she had an aggressive cancer with five lymph nodes involved, though I thought it was at an early stage and treatable. After the mastectomy, Janet was her usual unflappable self."
Beverly recommended an oncologist, Laura. Janet and Laura met and immediately hit it off. Laura appreciated Janet's candor, but her own words seemed studied and nonspecific, always leaving us with handholds on hope.
"Janet's directness hit me in the face. She wanted straight talk, not euphemisms. I told her there was no way to predict the outcome, but that cancer can be controlled."
Laura set up an eleven-month schedule of chemo and radiation. Janet, reporter's notebook in hand, would press Laura for details about everything from side effects to insurance issues. But there was one question we never seemed to hear the answer to. Was it truly impossible to know? Was Laura's response ambiguous? Or did we just refuse to consider the idea of death?
Whatever the truth, Janet went into cancer treatment having decided she was going to live.
Copyright © 2004 by Stan Mack