When I asked for prayer requests in church yesterday, someone named Elizabeth Edwards, as if she were someone we knew personally, and I felt
somehow we did. After reading and watching reports over the past few days, I’ve been thinking a lot about a friend who died of breast cancer and how although she survived a long time, she was very, very ill and eventually wheelchair bound. I want to say, "Go home and be with the little ones!" But I hear her sense that her husband is called to service of the nation, and I want to consider that, too. A few days ago I saw a clip of an older interview in which she described her decision to stop mourning at her son’s graveside and get up and live a life that reflected his promise. She seems to be doing the same thing now, whatever the medical outcome may be, and God bless her for it. Just because it wouldn’t be my choice doesn’t mean it isn’t the right one for her.
My mother’s cancer was a different sort, but the recurrence took her so quickly, we hardly had time to turn around. My mother-in-law’s death from ovarian cancer was much the same. She told the doctor about symptoms in early May, had surgery just before Mother’s Day and died in mid-August. I know that positive mental attitude makes a difference, but is it possible to be positive *and* opt out of your regular routines?
I’m not sure what I would do if I faced a terminal diagnosis of whatever kind. My work is deeply satisfying and meaningful to me, and a case can be made that it does good for others. But someone else could do those jobs, and no one else could spend time with my husband, children, pets and friends interchangeably with me.
Then I wonder about the breast itself. When I had a scare almost two years ago, I spent some time thinking in horror about life without my breasts. Please understand, I had been told there was something very strange and bad on a CT for a non-breast related medical question. Weeks went by before I could have the diagnostic mammogram that confirmed I just had some weird breast tissue. In those weeks I reflected and panicked about how attached I felt to my breasts. Reason would prevail and I would say to myself, "Surely you are more attached to your life and your family?" Well, yes, but…it was frightening. Breasts have such symbolic power.
And so I wonder if the breast, that emblem of nourishment poured out for others, isn’t a metaphor here for giving of oneself taken too far. I remember the middle school classmate whose mother received a breast cancer diagnosis while pregnant and died not long after the child was born. I think of the giving group of women with whom I used to do Bible Study and the fairly high number within that group diagnosed with breast cancer in their early 40’s.
I don’t mean that being selfish would keep us well, anymore than I think my mother’s Type C personality all by itself fated her to a death from melanoma. But what we give away of ourselves, and whether there is enough left to keep us going, is on my mind and on my heart.