Sooner or Later

Sooner or Later

From Chicken Soup for the Breast Cancer Survivor's Soul

Sooner or Later

You don’t get to choose how you’re going to die. Or when. You can only decide how you’re going to live. Now.

Joan Baez

On April 15, 1997, I was diagnosed with inflammatory breast cancer. Talk about an emotional roller-coaster: I felt shock and fear, denial and fear, anger and fear . . . a lot of fear.

The only thing that got me through that crazy earthquake of a time was that so many people offered so much help. Every day I got phone calls, e-mails, cards, letters, books, tapes, meals . . . you name it. There were on-line support groups, face-to-face support groups, dance movement therapy classes, art therapy classes, healing circles. There were friends, relatives, neighbors, therapists, social workers, ministers. I literally owe my life to all those people. But the person who helped me the most during that terrible time was my son John, six years old.

Because the perspective of a six-year-old is so different from an adult, I had to think in a very different way in order to help him understand what was happening. Little did I know at the time how much John would help me break through my fear barrier.

The first step in my treatment plan was chemotherapy. I felt a lot of fear about having chemo. I thought of it as poison and wondered if it would do more harm than good, but I certainly couldn’t describe it that way to John. I told him that, since I had a powerful sickness in my body, I would need powerful medicine to help me get better. The medicine was so powerful, in fact, that it was superhero medicine—it could knock the hair right off my head!

John was obsessed with Batman, Superman and the Power Rangers. He loved the thought that his mom’s life was being saved by medicine that was as strong as his heroes, and so he was thrilled when my hair was “knocked right off my head.” I found myself visualizing little Supermans flying through my body punching out all the cancer cells, and I wasn’t scared anymore.

Once four months’ worth of chemo was done, I moved on to the next step of my treatment: surgery.

I have never been particularly breast-identified, but a body part is a body part, and my goal has always been to retain as many of mine as possible. I dreaded the prospect of losing my breast. John was horrified.

Over the next few days, my six-year-old son worked feverishly, concocting alternate ways for the doctor to get the cancer out of my body without having to cut off my breast. His favorite, and most creative, idea was for the doctor to go into my body through my mouth and use a spoon to scoop out the sick parts of my breast from the inside, without having to touch the outside at all.

In discussing each of his proposals, together John and I realized and came to accept that losing a breast might just be the best way to help me get better. Suddenly, I was no longer afraid of the impending surgery.

But it was toward the end of my treatment that my son helped me the most.

One day, shortly before I started radiation, we were sitting in the living room. I think I was watching him play with Legos. Out of the blue (which is how kids ambush you with the big stuff), he said, “Mommy, if they don’t get the sickness out of your body in time, will you die?”

Well, I did not want to go there, so I said something like, “John, you know that eventually everything dies.”

He looked at me as if I were a total idiot and replied, “I know that, Mommy. What I mean is, if they don’t get the sickness out of your body in time, will you die sooner?”

Then it hit me: It wasn’t about whether I died sooner— or later—but that I really lived while I was here.

John’s question made me realize that there’s more than one way to die. And that day I decided that I didn’t want to die before my time—I didn’t want to die sooner— because I was living in fear. That day, I saw that I might not be able to control whether or not I recovered from breast cancer or its treatment, but I could control how I spent the time I had left, regardless of whether it was long or short.

My son helped me break the cycle of fear in which I had been trapped. His search for understanding led me to my own understanding—and that changed my life. You see, whether I die sooner or later, I’ve got a whole bunch of moments left to live. And I plan on living every one of them—right now.

Lori Misicka

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