“Hello?” her voice echoed through the phone as I choked on the dry air wedged in my throat.
“Hello,” she repeated while I searched for a word that might change the conversation, searched for a word that might get me off the phone, searched for any word that could take us back a few moments before those words, “It’s cancer.”
She was only 35, healthy, active. A mother of three little girls. A wife. My older sister. When she called to tell me about the lump, a few weeks prior, I hadn’t paid attention. Other topics of conversation washed over her words: putting the crib together, Mom’s impending visit, the weather. Now, another phone call, the same topic again.
Finally, I managed a response, “What did the doctor say?”
“But, how. What?” That’s all I could say. As an English teacher and writer, my life has been built on words. Words have soothed me and bolstered me and guided me. Now words had vanished, become senseless, dead. We hung up.
I went back to chopping potatoes. At nine months pregnant, I couldn’t get on a plane to visit. I lived on the edge of the Oregon Coast. She lived on the edge of the Deep South. Having grown up in Chicago together, sharing a basement bedroom as children, sharing an apartment through college and well into our 20s, we never thought our lives would carry us to edges so distant and different.
When my husband came home that evening, I didn’t say anything to him about the phone call. I didn’t say anything for several days. I couldn’t repeat what she had said, and had to say over and over again to family members, friends, neighbors.
That night I woke several times, choking on her words, frightened by everything they might bring: sorrow, horror, hardship. But mostly I thought about her little girls, all under the age of 5. I rummaged for words that might offer some sense of hope to all of us.
When I called the next day, I still didn’t know what to say. She needed words that offered help. All I had were questions and worries and fears that I swallowed into silence.
She demanded that we (all of us close to her) research the details: diets, vitamins, medications, surgeries. We followed her orders, but nothing we found was enough. Nothing we said made sense.
Consequent phone calls in the following months relayed the stories of the lumpectomy and radiation. Her husband and daughters accompanied her to the medical center. The girls drew pictures while they waited for their mother in a separate room. A room decorated with dusty, fake flowers and pink upholstered chairs.
While I waited, miles away, I nursed my newborn son.
After the lumpectomy and radiation, she was declared clear of cancer, but possibilities of reoccurrence became a daily threat. She cut all sugar from her diet, began a rigorous exercise regimen. Her already slender body lost many pounds. She scoured breast cancer message board sites, calling to inform me of the horrors she found, the friends she made, the other young mothers whose cancer had returned a year later or years later. I hated those message board sites. The fear they caused was much greater than the moments of comfort they might have brought. I didn’t want her to know that fear.
“I’m getting them both cut off.” Another phone call. “I need you to check out the breasts on this website and tell me how they look.” I was horrified. Words failed me again. The thought of cutting off my own heaving breasts that fed my son made me sick.
I didn’t want to look, but I didn’t want her to have to look alone. We spent several hours on the phone, both in front of our computers, looking at reconstructed breasts. Breasts that had been completely cut off and somehow reconstructed from body fat and skin. I knew this was something she had to do. I, too, would not want to live the rest of my life waiting. The pain of waiting seems far greater than the pain of physical intrusion.
She visited several breast reconstruction specialists, informed us of the options, and made her decision.
She moved away from her daughters, her husband, her life, for three weeks. Our mother met her in Atlanta at a house they had rented for the recovery. Other grandparents would help with the kids. I sent magazines and a card with words I didn’t write.
The first days after the surgery she couldn’t move. She woke each night, crying from pain. She couldn’t lift her arms for months, couldn’t wash her own hair, couldn’t hug her daughters without pain. She’s still in pain, years later. But she’s stopped looking at survivor websites. Stopped living that life. Although she’ll always be considered a survivor. She survived the horror.
Those first words, “It’s cancer,” left me wondering what her baby girls and her husband and I would do without her. They left her wondering the same. We didn’t know such a thing is survivable. All we knew about cancer was death. When I went to my own first mammogram and had to tell of “my” history with breast cancer, the nurse asked if my sister had died. She didn’t hesitate, flinch, stumble: “Did she die?” I choked down the vomit rising in my throat.
No, she is alive and healthy and brave. She guided us through the nightmare because no matter how hard we searched for words that would make sense, words that would comfort and relieve, we found none. I’m sorry words can never provide the relief and refuge I wished and wish for you. Sorry that every time you desperately needed me to say something, words seemed so useless.