By Suellen Hozman
Cancer wasn’t my epiphany. It didn’t feel like a gift. I don’t feel chosen. I’m not a better person for it. Breast cancer was the pits. It was painful and lonely. I’m not a candidate for feel-good print media feature articles. But my story deserves to be told. It’s the other story. And I’m still alive.
A “no name for it yet” issue had been brewing in me for a while. I wasn’t sure what it was. Then it came to me at a Making Strides Against Breast Cancer kick off breakfast. I’m not selected to be The Survivor speaker at these events. Perhaps you’ve been to one. I’ll describe it. The audience is huddled around round tables in a big room. The tables are set and there are cloth napkins. There’s a raised platform for the speakers and key fundraisers. Then it begins. Quiche and fruit and the pep talks to get you pumped up for your team and the bottom dollar. First, there’s the executive director who gives the “I’m-so-moved-at-the-outpouring-of-support speech.” Then plenty of time for the businesses that pledged the most amount of money. You’ll recognize them. They’re the big employers in your community. And, of course, the person they call The Survivor. She is upbeat, grateful and hopeful despite the chemo, radiation and surgery. She may only be in her thirties with small children. Nevertheless, she smiles and tells us how she loved her doctors and nurses. She may say that she’s a better person now. The audience loves her and her speech. They may find her inspiring. She didn’t disturb the peace. She didn’t make anyone uncomfortable. There were no indigestible images. Your quiche is going down just fine.
I admire The Survivor speaker. I’m happy for her strength and spirit. I feel terrible that she got breast cancer at such a young age. I worry that it struck before her children were grown. As a single parent I asked not to die until my boys were grown. I got that wish.
But there’s another side to the cancer story. My story. The story that’s not sanitized, not anesthetized. My story may make you uncomfortable. I believe that it’s necessary to be uncomfortable to be alive. Our growth and survival depends on our ability to triumph with adversity not avoid adversity. When you dismiss my experience with cancer, you dismiss me and my hope in the specie.
I officially joined the cancer club on May 8, 2000 at around 4:00 pm in Detroit, Michigan at my mother’s apartment. I was shocked. So was my mother. She said, “and you eat vegetables. You never know”. I became private about my diagnosis of breast cancer. Not because it was my breast. Not because I don’t like to share. But because most people shut me up before I could begin. There was no sanctuary for my pain. The conversations would go like this:
Me, “I have breast cancer.”
The other person, “Oh, I know an aunt, sister, wife, friend, co-worker with breast cancer.”
Me, to myself, “So, what am I supposed to do now? Do I ask to hear their stories and brace myself for the ones that are dead? Is this a breast cancer competition conversation? Do you want me to feel good about my diagnosis because I’m still alive?”
I made myself be private. I needed all my emotional reserve to show up for myself and survive the damn treatments. The cancer never hurt until I agreed to get cured. I had no emotional reserve to empathize with the endless cancer stories that came at me when I shared my diagnosis. Why was it so hard, so uncommon for someone to say, “I’m sorry for your pain. Please let me know if there is something that I can do to help”?
There’s no cookie cutter for breast cancer. Mine was mine; two surgeries, six-weeks of radiation and thirteen months of Tamoxifen. I had to stop the latter when the pharmacist at the drive-through didn’t ask my name anymore and the medication was to stop the side effects of the side effects medication. I never stopped going to work. The world doesn’t stop, no matter what. No one brought me food, or mowed my lawn, offered to take me out, or even brought me a candle. They devote a special radiation session to engineer a form that you lay on to maximize your position for the radiation. But no one gives you a form to take home so that you can sleep through the night with your inflamed, screaming breast.
It’s time we gathered up some courage to face pain, develop tools to deal with it and get stronger. Not from the cancer, but from the journey. Reject the anesthetized, sanitized life. There are millions like me out there who didn’t win the Tour de France after cancer. I’m happy for those who feel that they are better people because they had cancer. Perhaps I envy their nature. It wasn’t like that for me. And there are millions like me who aren’t heroes. Just the person down the block who authentically felt pain, confusion and loneliness.
I never call myself A Survivor. I am no more or less a survivor than anyone else on the planet who is still breathing. No one ever asks me to be the breast cancer poster person. They won’t. I don’t like being called A Survivor. Just call me Suellen, human being.
Yes, I’m changed because of cancer. I’m unattractively hypochondriacal. As I complete my daily walk and feel a pain in my groin I wonder if that’s the first sign of pelvic cancer.
So far, I don’t like the change. But I got a poem out of it. It tells my cancer story.
I grew up in inches
Inch by inch
Started out about 19 inches
Ended up about 4 feet 12 inches
Who knew from centimeters?
Doctors and their secret language
Your cancer is 1.5 centimeters
Less than an inch
Just a little more than half an inch
The size of a green grape
Your choice is mutilation or modified nuclear bomb
Mastectomy or radiation
Is this what it means to come within an inch of your life?
Suellen Hozman, August 2000
Suellen Hozman describes herself as a human being, mother, daughter, grandmother, friend and student of life. She is an artist, photographer, and writer.
Please visit her website at www.facialvision.com. Or
have a cup of coffee or tea and conversation with her
at The cafe in Lopez Bakery or email her at