October 18th, 2010
10:30 AM ET
Last week, freelance writer Amanda Enayati shared the lessons of her breast cancer journey in a series of five essays on CNNHealth.com. In turn, readers shared their own stories of strength and survival. Today Amanda reflects on her resulting tumble of emotions and gratitude.
“I just learned 2 weeks ago that I have breast Cancer, I had a lumpectomy 2 days ago. I also never thought this would happen, 48 y/o, my God I was upset, I said to God I have already gone through so much, I have a 24 y/o with Downs and my life has been a struggle, but something inside me knew, that I had to go through this chapter in my life.”
This is how far I got into the woman’s comment about my first essay before I broke down weeping.
I had not expected the weeping. Or the joyful tears. I had been naïve.
I wrote the series about my experiences with breast cancer for purely selfish reasons: As a writer, it was one of the stories I needed to tell. Cancer has been one of a handful of rough spots in my otherwise joyful youngish life, which has included a revolution, an escape from my homeland, a close encounter with terrorism and a number of personal battles. In the three years since my diagnosis, I have refused to take ownership of cancer as a part of my identity, but I do recognize it as a passage.
What I hadn’t accounted for was that, along with having to deal with the occasional troll or absurdly literal dissector of random turns of phrase in my writing, I had volunteered to cross an ocean of grief, hope, desperation, fury, resignation, camaraderie and … love.
“I have read this time and time again,” wrote Jessica. She was diagnosed at age 16 with Stage 2 cancer with a large tumor. “[I]t’s been nothing but a struggle, but I’ve learned to grow up a lot quicker than I have had to, I feel more sympathy for things and people, I take time to realize that every day is a gift, and I continue to work harder at making sure people are aware that yes, it can happen at an early age.” Jessica signed her note: “Peace, love and remission.”
So wrote the journalist who was forced to flee her home in New Orleans “with my family and a bucket to throw up in after my second round of chemo” in the wake of the havoc wreaked by Hurricane Katrina: “I shun the terminology of war … I was not fighting cancer, I was enduring it … There are no winners or losers or warriors or victims.” When she returned to her flooded home, it was not cancer she was interested in writing about because “to write about it, I would have to face it … so instead, I wrote about the recovery of my city.”
Half of a pair of cancer researchers—a husband and wife team—wrote: “Many days things in our lab get quite discouraging due to the lack of funding and the slow pace of progress. Honestly, sometimes I feel like giving up … But whenever I feel that way, something happens to put a face on our work. Today, you have become one of those faces … a partner with us in our work.” Though humbled, I accepted that honor.
I felt helpless as I read one woman’s pleas about Avastin, a drug whose approval for breast cancer is at risk of being revoked by the FDA : “This drug is helping me immensely. I am stage 4. Please don’t let them take [it] away from me … I cannot afford this drug without insurance coverage.”
There was Charley, widowed by cancer; Thurston, who spoke out as the voice of those struck with male breast cancer; Sheryl, the divorced working mother who found herself wondering who would care for her 10-year old son and feeling a strange guilt about the fact that hers was caught early; Burt, who urged me to read "The China Study," which, along with "Anticancer," was virtually my bible in the year after diagnosis; Jennifer, who wanted to laminate one of my essays because it said “things that I cannot say out loud to my family, friends, students”; Laura, who made my day by reporting that she had just had a mammogram and ultrasound—“all negative”; those who protested my addressing breast cancer only and not all cancer; and Sarah and Lydia and Kimberly and Erica and scores of other young women and men whose lives have been irrevocably changed by a cancer diagnosis.
There we were, standing shoulder to shoulder, the frontline of an illness that can devastate, define and perhaps even renew. Though unknown to one another, we are brethren of sorts—bonded through our experiences, our trials, our words of love and encouragement, spoken just as much for others as for ourselves. All of us joined in our collective hope for miracles.
In the end, I found myself returning to that very first commenter whose words of humanity seemed as though they were dictated by an angel:
“I feel even more empathy and want to give of myself even deeper, so here I am, yes here I am world, I refuse to feel sorry for me, I want to live, I want to love, I want to kiss my sons even harder every day. I want to live life without regrets, my Sun is now brighter, my praise is stronger, my dog is sweeter. My coffee tastes better, I will savor every moment He gives me.”
Amanda Enayati’s work has appeared in Salon, the Washington Post, Detroit News, and "Let Me Tell You Where I’ve Been: New Writing by Women of the Iranian Diaspora" (University of Arkansas Press). You can follow her on Twitter @AmandaEnayati or her daily blog, practicalmagicforbeginners.com.
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