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Mortality is a Bitch

It is probably not a good omen when your Aloe plant dies.

Looking at its limp limbs sadly draped over the ceramic pot I had purchased only a few months ago while feeling alive and hopeful, I must pause and consider my own mortality.

My mind is fully cognizant of the statistics, but my spirit is in denial.

Yes, I have seen the big blue marble we call home travel around the sun seventy-seven times.

Yes, I have read the actuarial predictions for a person of my gender and general physical condition. Yes, I know that I am blessed to have survived longer than any close relatives.

Yes, I know that time and genetics eventually catch up with you regardless of lifestyle.

Yes, I know all this but somehow, I still expect to be different. You might call that the height of arrogance or ignorance, take your choice.

Since the age of forty I have faithfully, but reluctantly, submitted my tender chest to the smashers and scanners always hoping for good news. I was reminded frequently that dense breast tissue makes it more difficult to spot problems and often requires additional diagnostic procedures.

While ever conscious that our Mother outlived the prognostications when a snapped femur revealed metastatic breast cancer, I could not forget that she might have been with us longer with early diagnosis. She chose not to make use of preventive medical procedures. I never asked her, and she never volunteered any reasons for ignoring symptoms.

I would be smarter. I would take advantage of modern medicine and hold the grim reaper at bay a bit longer. That brings me back to my annual pilgrimage which paid off, at least the first thirty-seven times.

This time would be different. Now I find myself no longer in control but at the mercy of the current multi-discipline medical protocol. I have already submitted to biopsies, MRIs, CT scans, wire insertions and am nervously awaiting a partial mastectomy which they euphemistically call a lumpectomy.

Reflecting on my Mother’s decision not to know, I can begin to relate. The uncertainty of it all, the cumulative effect of waiting, imagining the worst but hoping for the best begins to play tricks on the mind. Yes, there are days when I would prefer to be in blissful ignorance.

We are always told; it is more important how one responds to crisis than that the crisis occurred. I don’t profess to be one of the brave soldiers, but I will try to respond with a sense of balance and perhaps a bit of humor. Watch this space.

Waking up post-operative at 3:00 pm, two weeks after my anxiety-ridden ramblings above, I felt unexpectedly normal. In fact, I was doing upper-body Tai Chi exercises when my family members were escorted into the recovery area.

Sitting up and preparing to leave, I received a preventative pain medication and a prescription to fill for additional palliative care. My body reacted causing me to become nauseous and dizzy, so they administered an anti-nausea medication through the IV. Then I fell asleep. They told me I was “narcotic naïve.”

Opening my eyes for the second time at approximately 6:00 pm, I heard a nurse say, “she will be more comfortable in her own bed.” That was the polite way of saying, “You need to get dressed and go home so we can complete our clean-up process.”

I faithfully followed all the discharge instructions. I wore the compression garment, avoided lifting, took great care with showering. On the second day, I got the courage to really look at the damage. There was swelling, serious multi-colored bruising and two incisions. Most shocking was that the side that had undergone a removal of tissue looked considerably larger than the other side.

Waiting for the pathology results was worse than physical discomfort, but on the fifth day after surgery I had an appointment with my surgeon. She delivered very welcome news: lymph node was negative, margins were negative. We felt like celebrating, so we did. Comfort food was in order. Steak and Shack had just what I needed, a real old-fashioned hamburger and a delicious chocolate shake.

The next week, I received an encouraging prognosis from my new Medical Oncologist. He confirmed what I had heard from the Surgeon and the Pathologist. It appears that my treatment will include a series of radiation treatments followed by an oral medication to suppress estrogen and, of course, regular mammograms. Given the original possibilities, this was the absolute best outcome and I am truly thankful for my blessings.

Among those blessings I must include several women whom I had occasion to see during this medical journey who were very generous in sharing their stories of breast cancer treatment. There is a natural kinship of understanding when you are talking with someone who has had almost an identical experience.

Unlike other concerned and loving family and friends, these new friends have heard the same paralyzing words. They have carried fear of the unknown for weeks or months in their hearts and minds. Although they may have functioned normally from the viewpoint of the outside world, their internal world was, at least temporally, in turmoil.

There is nothing quite as focusing as hearing the word, Cancer. Everything you were doing, planning, or worrying about, fades into the background.

I do not presume that my reactions, feelings, or fears are any different or more intense than the millions of others who have found themselves on this path. Most likely, many women who receive a similar diagnosis, travel the lonely road through well-known stages beginning with denial and anger and hopefully leading to acceptance.

Yes, mortality is a bitch. However, life is a precious gift not to be squandered by denial that mortality is real.

If I bring another Aloe plant into my life, I will pay more attention to its needs as I will to my loved ones and even to myself.


Staring at the circular moving head of my new friend, I decided to name him Lucifer.

Attached to a long metal arm which moved both vertically and horizontally in a broad arch across my body, Lucifer’s face had a glass covering through which he aimed death rays at me based on a personalized plan.

My team corrected me. “ You are in a war. Those are Death to Cancer Rays”

Seven weeks after my lumpectomy, my radiation therapy began. It was originally scheduled for one-month post-surgery; however, the pace of my healing was slower than expected.

In the interim, I met my Medical Oncologist who gave me an outline of my next five years. He explained that he would be the team captain overseeing my progress and coordinating with my Surgeon, Radiation Oncologist, and the Breast Cancer Center.

During our initial consultation, he reviewed every aspect of my case including diagnosis and prognosis. The current protocol included post-surgery radiation therapy, followed by estrogen suppressing medication, and frequent mammograms.His detailed presentation of data was intended to leave me with a sense of optimism about my future.

The program of radiation treatments would be conducted Monday through Friday at 1:00 pm for four weeks. Life would now be planned around these treatments and other medical appointments.

The Radiation Oncologist explained that there would be a first visit to permanently mark my body followed by a week of planning before the first treatment began.

During that first visit, I was scanned, and tattooed in six spots. Unfortunately, they did not give me the opportunity to select a design, but I can now say I have joined many of the younger set,


So, the second part of my journey began. Once each week the Radiation Oncologist would examine my breast and discuss my progress. On all the other days, I was under direction of the Radiation Team, who fortunately were all extremely kind, considerate, and helped me to remain as positive as possible.

Several weeks into treatment, I visited a Dermatologist to look at a spot on my nose that had failed to heal for more than four months. Of course, I should have taken care of this sooner, but my mind was focused lower on my body.

Another biopsy confirmed a basal cell carcinoma which would require additional treatment. I was presented with two choices, more surgery or more radiation. Given the location, I decided on radiation to limit the potential for permanent scarring. I was glad to learn that I could take a break between treating the two conditions.

As this journey continued, I was blessed to have the privilege of sharing information with two women who had walked, and are still walking, the same road.

We have joked together about how modesty completely flies out the window when each day at the same time you strip down and face two or three people, male and female, who are positioning you very precisely on the treatment table.

The daily routine becomes second nature. Walk down the hall, strip off the top, climb on the table, allow them to move you without moving yourself, and remain completely still for approximately ten minutes.

That last part is the most difficult. Almost immediately, my nose or eyes begin to itch. To avoid ruining the plan and possibly having to repeat the process, I have learned to play mind tricks.

Most days, I meticulously think of the first seventeen moves of the Tai Chi set I have been practicing for almost twenty years. I inhale deeply as I stretch my spine upward. I carefully place the correct foot and position the arms. I exhale as I shift my weight either forward or back depending on the move.

If I can maintain this degree of concentration, I hear the team telling me to lower my arm and the treatment is finished before I get to the tenth move.

Climbing on the table for the sixteenth time, I was told, “Today will be a little longer. After we treat you, we have to set up for the final four.”

I laughed to myself. “How about that. I finally made the final four, and during March Madness to boot. Let’s go team!”

I could sense someone moving around me during the resetting process. Suddenly, I felt lines being traced around and on my breast. Inquiring about the difference in the last four sessions, I learned that the radiation would be targeted to the exact location from which the tumor had been removed.

Eying the blue drawings while preparing to get dressed, I had to chuckle. I looked like a tribal warrior in a National Geographic. Perhaps this was a return to my Native American ancestry.

With a weekend off, I look forward to crossing the finish line next Wednesday, I will ring that bell with much joy and anticipation of returning to some sense of normality for at least a while.

With humility, I realize that despite the fear, discomfort, and inconvenience, I am so much more fortunate than many. Because of that knowledge, I will attempt to make the most of whatever time I have remaining in this temporal realm.

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