Saturday, April 13, 2013


On DAY 12 of the Wego Health Activist Writer's Month Challenge, I'm asked a simple question: "If you could go back in time and talk to yourself on the day of diagnosis, what would you say?" Well, I probably wouldn't stop talking if I had it to do over again. The way it went down, I hardly talked at all that day. Here's why.

I waited about five days between biopsy and phone call. When the phone finally rang at lunchtime on December 8, 2011, I heard Dr. S. (my primary physician) say in a very upbeat voice, "Well, I have your test results!" 

And I thought: Oh good! In the nanosecond between his comment and mine, I really (no, really) thought he was going to give me good news, that the biopsy revealed nothing. I to this day can remember how my body suddenly relaxed.

But then he dropped the C-bomb...
... "Unfortunately, it IS cancer."

Very. Long. Pause. 

Me: "I was not expecting that." Because I'd spent the morning in La-La-Denial Land.

The hair on the back of my neck stood up and my face became red-hot as Dr. S. rattled off the first words of my new vocabulary.

"Invasive ductal carcinoma." 

"Well differentiated." 

"Not a tumor." (HUH? I have a mass that looks like breast tissue but has cancer cells in it? All I hear is Arnold Schwarzenegger's voice: "It's not a tuma!")

I remember little else, other than saying we would speak more tomorrow... I had a pre-scheduled appointment with Dr. S that I had made three months prior. In hindsight, that was a sign.

I close the phone. I don't cry. I try but I'm too terror-stricken. I just sit there at the kitchen table, completely dazed. I don't dare call my husband at work about The Big C. Instead, I make two phone calls to two dear friends on opposite sides of the country. Neither of them answers.

I get up from the kitchen chair. Time seems to have compressed and expanded all at once, leaving no oxygen in the room. I hear myself gasp. I can feel my blood pressure in my ears. I'm hot, I'm cold, I'm sweating, I'm clammy. I'm as unnerved as if I'd just learned of the death of a loved one. Same. Exact. Feeling. Utter shock. Like drowning: One minute above water, the next losing my grip on life.

Because I've been in such a state of denial prior to "the call," I have no real game plan in place aside from waiting to tell my husband this God-awful news in person. I'm actually more concerned about him than I am about myself. Which in hindsight sounds crazy, but how can he go through this again? His first wife died of metastatic breast cancer. And in my denial-ridden mind, I thought that offered me some measure of protection. Which in hindsight is crazy. What are the chances that a man has two wives with breast cancer? (They are apparently close to 50%.) I couldn't tell him over the phone.

Instead I sit myself down on the stiff couch in the formal living room. (I guess I don't want to get too comfortable sitting in the den; after all, cancer is a very uncomfortable topic.) I call one of my BFFs again. Still no answer. An hour ticks by. Then another. And there I sit, too paralyzed to peel myself off the floral tapestry. 

Both BFFs knew I had gone in for a biopsy. They both told me they were sure it was nothing. I told them I would call only if something was wrong. I called. Are they afraid to talk to me? Why aren't they calling me back? In hindsight I should have gone down the friend and family list until someone answered. 

The actual hikers on the actual day that I learned I had cancer. © theBigCandMe    
I'll explode if I keep this news in any longer. So I lace up my sneakers, throw on a sweatshirt and do the only thing I know will clear my head: I take a hike. And I can't believe I have cancer.

I know I'll run into other hikers soon on this popular trail, but right now I am grateful to be alone. I walk up a series of steep inclines that take me to the top of a magnificent hill. The view is amazing... mountains and mountains for miles and miles. The warm breeze and late-afternoon sun feels so good against my skin. I stop and gaze into the distance, trying to etch the image into my brain. I can't believe I have cancer. 

I hear voices. Really. Loud ones. I turn to see three women yakkity-yakking as they climb the hill behind me. A big black and white dog is beside them. They say hi, then continue down a trail I've never taken before. Oh, what the hell. I might as well see where they're headed. I'm in a risk-taking mood. After all, I have cancer.

They're walking much faster than me, so I really have to pick up the pace, which breaks my concentration. This is good. I decide that if I actually catch up to them, I'll tell these three strangers my news: It's been three hours since I found out I have breast cancer, and you three are the first to know. 

I'm deep in this thought when I hear someone call out, "On your left!" Just a guy on a mountain bike. I let him pass me, and watch as he speeds down the long, narrow trail behind the women and the dog. They can't hear him coming because they are still yakkity-yakking, but he notices this. He makes a wide turn and passes on their left so he won't startle them or their dog. But something goes awry. I see his bike fly up in the air; there's commotion, dust, plumes of dirt. The women form a huddle around him. Though I can't see much from this distance, I can tell he's bleeding.

I jog toward them and see the gash in his forehead. He says he's OK, but when he tries to stand he's too dizzy. One woman gives him her water bottle. I hand him the wad of Kleenex I had stuffed in my pocket before I left the house, in case I started crying. (Who knew someone would need my tissues before I did?) I can't believe I have cancer. 

We decide to walk this man back down the mountain. All hands are on deck: One gal holds the dog leash. Another walks the bike. One woman calls 911 so an ambulance can meet us at the trailhead. (She then calls the man's wife so she can do the same.) I carry his backpack, which must be stuffed with bricks because it's so dang heavy. 

Our little caravan slowly makes its way down the trail. We walk, he talks. He tells us he bikes these trails regularly, several times a week in fact, but has never crashed before. (Well, except for that one time when he busted up his knee.) As we reach the bottom of the hill, we tell him it's not such a good idea to go biking alone, 'cause what if he wiped out and we hadn't been there? Blood and coyotes and rattlesnakes do not a happy hiker (or biker) make.

We round the final bend; his wife and daughter rush towards us. An EMT truck is waiting in the parking lot. We hand off his accoutrements to his anxious family and say goodbye. The ladies and their dog turn around and head back up the hill to finish their hike. I contemplate following them, but decide maybe it's best not to hike alone twice in one day. 

I never did tell them my news. Hiking is funny that way. I have cancer and already I've forgotten that I do. This is good. In hindsight, I know now how rare those moments will be. 

But despite my husband having to go through breast cancer twice, In hindsight I would tell myself that everything would be alright. Husband would be fine — it is me I should be more worried about. That we would get through this. That humor would be the key to adding levity, balance and perspective to this detour. Laughter really is the best Rx.


  1. As difficult as this must have been to deal with... I agree that laughter can almost always help eventually:)

  2. I was with you on that hike. Every step, Renn.

    1. I wish you would have been, Yvonne! That would have been easier. I didn't know how many new friends cancer would help me make! ;-)

  3. Wow, that is a crazy set of circumstances you went through just hours after diagnosis! You are a good storyteller.

    1. Thanks, Katie! It's all so surreal to think about now. How did I *not* tell anyone for hours and hours that I had cancer? No idea.

  4. Wow, fantastically told, Renn. What a day... and all the whole you held the news inside you. I so wish I'd been on that trail, if for no other reason than to say hello and listen if you needed to speak.Though I guess through this story, we were all with you as you walked on your hike.

    1. Catherine, I wish I had a posse with me that day! (See my note to Yvonne above.) But in the retelling, I carry all my sisters (and brothers) who have ever heard the words, "You have cancer" with me. We all understand what those first seconds, minutes, hours, days felt like. Like any catastrophe, the memory is forever etched. No, burned.

  5. Hi Renn,
    This is a wonderfully written post, despite the fact the tale you are telling is about getting horrible news. Somehow you managed to inject humor and wisdom into it... It must have been quite a shock that day to be expecting the all clear. When I got the call, I think I was actually expecting bad news as everyone kept telling me things looked highly suspicious... Thanks for sharing your link on my post. Congrats on doing this blog challenge. I just haven't been able to make a commitment like that yet. Maybe next year?

    1. Hi Nancy! Thanks so much for sharing this post. I was able to "stay" in denial b/c no one ever used the words "cancer" or "suspicious" to me in the days between mammo and diagnosis. In fact, very little was said during the biopsy process. I guess that's why I kept thinking it was nothing. (And I have family history! Like I said, I was living in that Land o' Denial and I didn't want to budge!)

      The Wego Challenge is a commitment but it's also fun. I go into it telling myself if I only have time to write a few sentences each day, so be it. But once I get writing, well, you know how that goes! There were several days I was unable to post, but it's OK. It's really an exercise in loosening up the writer's block!

      Anyway, thanks again for sharing this!


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