Laundry Soap

Laundry Soap

From Chicken Soup for the Breast Cancer Survivor's Soul

Laundry Soap

This is the first time I’ve sat and thought about what I really want to do, and what I really want is to be a grandmother.

Diahann Carroll

The Marie Curie Cancer Care center in North London is a hospice for the terminally ill. Surrounded by green lawns and leafy trees, it seemed more like the small community hospital in my former Maine hometown than the large, forbidding Victorian structure I was attending for my cancer treatments. The center had kindly loaned the use of what they called the library (really just a large, open room with comfortable chairs and a couple of bookcases) to a newly formed cancer support group.

I arrived early for my first meeting—nervous, frightened and unsure of exactly what it was I was doing there. I had family and friends who loved me and who were being supportive. I had never had a problem sharing my thoughts and feelings with them, but I had read that support groups increase survival rates, so there I was. I was going to be a survivor, after all.

I was greeted, welcomed, offered a cup of tea (it is England, after all), and asked who I was, where I lived, where had I heard about them. Even with tea, my mouth was dry, and I struggled to answer.

“When were you diagnosed?” asked a Skinny Woman who seemed to be about my age.

“Last month,” I replied.

“When was your operation?” inquired Baldie with Big Earrings.

“Three weeks ago.”

A pause. Then, gently, from the Well-Dressed Matron in the corner, “What did they find?”

“Ten nodes positive,” I answered.

There was a longer pause. I was dealing with experts here, and we all knew that wasn’t good. Finally, from Baldie again, “How are you doing?”

“I’m feeling very positive,” I replied with practiced stoicism. “I’ll do whatever is necessary to get through this. I’m sure I’m going to make it. I’m strong. I’m fairly young. I’m a fighter. I’m going to be okay.” The words tumbled out, the same ones I spoke to my family, to my friends.

I looked around. Everyone smiled warmly and nodded encouragement. And none of them believed a word I said. Out of the silence, I plunged into the truth like a cold lake and came up sputtering.

“I don’t understand what’s happening to me. And sometimes, out of nowhere, like last night, I think the oddest stuff. I was sitting on my sofa, and I looked across my living room at my bookcase, jammed full of books and papers, and even more books and papers behind that. And the thought just popped into my head: I’d better clear that out. I sure don’t want my family to have to do it after I’m dead.” I came up for air.

I had admitted the unadmittable. No matter how positive I felt, no matter how strong I tried to be, someplace, down deep, I knew I was going to die. Tears filled my eyes. Now was the time for a little pitying sentiment, surely. I deserved a hug or a reserved English pat on the arm, at the very least. Why else would I open my heart to a group of strangers with whom I had nothing in common?

Laughter and guffaws, shrieks and whoops washed over me. Stunned, my tears disappeared as quickly as they had formed.

“You should have been here last week,” choked out Baldie, the Journalist, through little hiccuping laughs. I stared at these crazy people.

The matron, Rosie, the Hampstead Barrister, chipped in, “I’d just moved back here from Singapore when I got my diagnosis, and, of course, I didn’t own a warm coat. But all I could think was what a waste of money it would be. I froze all that winter.”

“My thing was ‘travel size,’” chipped in Skinny Woman, Linda the Art Therapist from Crouch End. “I couldn’t bring myself to buy the economy size anything, so for two years, every time I went to the store, I bought little tiny packs and bottles of laundry detergent and dishwashing liquid and shampoo.”

Everyone had a story more ridiculous than the last. No one thought it odd that not only was I extremely positive I was going to live, but also certain I was going to die. And no one fell off her chair when I admitted it. This was my introduction to the patient-run, unconventional support group that was to become so important to me during my treatment and recovery.

There were other meetings less cheerful, others even more rowdy. Over the years, we lost members, both to cancer and back to their healthy lives. We held Christmas parties and birthday celebrations and memorials. But in those weeks and months of learning to live with breast cancer, I shared my journey with fellow travelers who understood my illness and my fears, and taught me to laugh at both.

At the first meeting I attended after I finished my treatment, one of my new friends presented me with a gift. You know, to this day, all these years later, I don’t think that I have ever seen such a large box of laundry detergent!

Lolly Susi

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