40: Sister/Survivor

40: Sister/Survivor

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Tough Times, Tough People


The world is a tragedy to those who feel, but a comedy to those who think.

~Horace Walpole

When my sister, Judy, was diagnosed with breast cancer, of course I was worried about the outcome. But my experience as a nurse led me to believe the outcome would be good. She had been diagnosed early, her lymph nodes were not involved, and she was in good health otherwise. The doctor had given her an excellent prognosis. So why was I so worried?

Breast cancer surgery leaves surgical scars that are hard for some women to face. But I worried most about the emotional scars that linger long after the physical scars have faded away.

I was worried that just having to deal with the entire experience of having breast cancer could break my sister’s spirit.

Judy is a strong, take-charge, independent, woman. But when she is faced with anything remotely connected with disease, blood, gore, or death... she totally freaks out. She walks away when people start talking about ailments, operations, or the mere mention of bodily functions. If a kid in the family says, “Look at my boo-boo,” Judy covers her eyes and makes a face.

My sister complains about people who “constantly whine about being sick.” She has been known to say, “I have to hang up now” if friends or family members insist on talking about their latest illness. She rarely acknowledges being sick herself.

Therefore, I worried that this was going to be a life-altering experience for her on many levels.

The cancer was discovered on my sister’s very first mammogram. It was done when she was fifty-eight years old. “I knew I shouldn’t let that doctor talk me into having a mammogram—if you go looking for trouble you’ll always find it,” she said. No one could convince her that finding the cancer early was a good thing. She blustered and balked but finally accepted the diagnosis and treatment plan. She would have her breast removed and reconstructed.

Judy’s daughter accompanied her to the hospital. When the elevator arrived, my sister stepped back and let the doors close. “Thanks, I’ll take the next one,” she said.

My niece raised her eyebrows. “What was that all about? There was plenty of room on the elevator.”

“There were sick people on that one!” my sister exclaimed.

Oh Lord, we’re in for a long ride, my niece thought.

On the day of surgery, Judy looked petrified. That was understandable; all her worst fears had come to life. She had a dreaded disease. She was in a hospital... with sick people. She was about to have her breast cut off. To add insult to injury, they made her take out her dentures and go toothless in front of visitors and staff all morning.

In a little cubicle, a young doctor apologized for exposing her as he drew black marks on her breast. “Listen here, this doesn’t embarrass me at all, it’s being without my teeth that’s embarrassing. In fact, more people have seen me without my clothes than have seen me without my teeth,” she huffed.

Finally, they told her it was time to go to surgery, and the look in her eyes broke my heart.

“I swear to God, if I could go in your place, I would,” I told her.

“And I swear to God, I’d let you!” she retorted.

When Judy came out of surgery, the entire family was there. Her son, Tony, went in to see her first because he was the most anxious. He was only gone a moment, then he came running out of her room in panic. We all jumped to our feet and ran to meet him.

He said, “Something terrible happened to my mom in there. I don’t know what they did to her but she doesn’t even look like herself. She won’t wake up and her face looks like it’s all sunken in!”

We raced into the room to find Judy heavily sedated, looking pale, hair mussed, and still without her dentures. My sister Jean burst out laughing. “When she wakes up, she’ll put on her make-up, fix her hair, and put in her teeth. Then she’ll look like she always does. She’s fine!” A few hours later, Judy did just that and my nephew was relieved.

Judy was a trouper. She coped with her surgery and hospital stay (with sick people) amazingly well.

However, on the day of discharge she phoned me and said, “They left a tube hooked to a big drain thing inside me and they’re sending me home with it! It has blood in it and they want me to empty it out every day. You nurses are used to this stuff. How do they expect people to handle these medical things at home?”

I assured her she would not have to deal with it. “I’ll stop by after work each day to change the bandages and empty the drain. I know how you feel about gross stuff,” I told her. When I arrived the first evening, she had already emptied the drain and changed her own bandage. She said, “I just couldn’t see you driving sixty miles every day just to baby me. It’s not like I’m an invalid.”

Her recovery was smooth and rapid. The drain was removed and the incision was healing beautifully. Judy was soon well enough to resume our monthly luncheon trip. At the posh restaurant, she ordered soup. I cringed. She is especially buxom and frequently spills something (especially soup) on her bosom when she eats. It has become a family joke. We wait to see what she will spill at holiday dinners.

However, when the soup was served, she just sat there looking at it with this smirk on her face.

“What?” I asked.

She mused, “I was just thinking about something. If you were embarrassed when I dropped soup on my boob in fancy restaurants, just think how embarrassed you would be if the stitches broke and my boob dropped in the soup!”

It takes more than breast cancer to break the spirit of a strong woman.

~Joyce Seabolt

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