Dear Reader

A Cancer Diagnosis(A)

My life, often chronicled in this column for the past twenty five years, has not always been typical of the white picket fence ideal I grew up expecting in the fifties and sixties. But I have been blessed with decades of dependable good health, a supportive family, many wonderful friends and lots of adventures both professionally and personally. The past three months, I have been faced with my greatest challenge to date: a cancer diagnosis. My sister, who is a survivor of early stage breast cancer, warned me a few weeks ago that when you mention the “Big C” relative to your own health some people will start talking to you like you’re already dead. Since my diagnosis of ovarian cancer recently is not seen at all as a death sentence, but is considered very “treatable” by my doctors (more on them later), my first lesson was to learn to deflect the mirrors of fear that were reflected by some others from the start. It’s a kind of Zen exercise – center in yourself on your own game. The diagnosis was rich with irony. One of Trillium Asset Management’s board members, Sherry Salway Black, is the Executive Director of the Ovarian Cancer National Alliance and well known to doctors who are in the center of treatment for the disease. Sherry herself is a survivor, and just last fall she passed a list of symptoms to all females in the company suggesting that this “silent cancer” is one for which people must be vigilant because as yet there are no Mammogram-like tests available for early detection. My own intuitive knowledge of my body and when it’s not right helped me find my way to a doctor fairly early, but it’s easy to miss this particular cancer. Plus, it was my rock hard, always dependable digestive system that gave the clues – I suddenly became sensitive to Mexican food and my favorite salads. Clearly not right!!
But my point in telling this story is neither to depress nor scare anyone, because my story is not depressing and it is not scary. My story is one of kind and concerned caregivers, a small group of health care professionals from Mass General, North Shore (MA) Medical Center, and the Dana Farber Cancer Institute that would not give up until they learned the truth. It is the story of a focused health care system that, amid chaos and bad reputations in the general world, has been nothing short of wonderful, and about networks so much deeper than the for-profit greed that fills Wall Street Journal headlines that you wonder where the good stories go.
There is of course the issue of the stages of chemo and how stupid you get at times, of the fact that I have taken on the aura and personality of a restless ghost, wandering around trying to pause and find something interesting to do with the concentration powers of a flea, sometimes wondering how to “haunt” people with a self-awarded new license to create mischief. Not wanting my hair to fall out and thus lose control, I cut it and had my husband shave it, attempting to resemble Sinead O’Connor, Demi Moore or Sigourney Weaver – my hair frizzes in summer and people tell me the wig I bought from May’s Wigs looks better than my real hair anyway. And last but not least there is the fact that I can’t eat fresh cherries, raspberries or peaches this summer, three of my favorite things, having already eschewed fiddleheads for a whole season.
And then there’s the issue of meddling – I was very happy to delegate responsibilities to my great team at Trillium Asset Management but now must resist looking over their shoulders. Too much. Through this all I see people who don’t go home from therapy to comfortable, air conditioned homes with beautiful back yards and loving families or Saint Jesse, my husband. I see people whose financial lives are threatened, whose families break up, whose day-to-day lives become miserable, and I feel very, very lucky. You learn very quickly when diagnosed with cancer – everything is relative!