Memo From Mac



The Burlington Hawk-Eye
The Hawk Eye
Burlington, Iowa

She Faced The Dragon Alone 
November 11, 1982

This Thanksgiving story began Halloween night. We were at supper when the phone rang. The voice asked for Peggy and she followed the stretch cord into the kitchen. I could hear just enough of her crisp, business-like responses to be curious.

When she came back to the table she sat with her fork poised over her plate. I remember that her hand was very steady. She stared straight ahead and said in a calm, flat voice:

"That was my doctor. She said I flunked my mammogram. She wants me to see a surgeon tomorrow."

That's how the old dread becomes reality. Suddenly, undramatically intruding on a quiet Sunday night. The world just stops for a fractional moment, imperceptibly like a skipped heartbeat, a catch in the breath and then goes on.

The unspoken word bursts from its old hiding place and sits sourly on the tongue. Cancer.

Ninety thousand American women discover breast cancer each year; 33,000 each year die from it. More American women die of breast cancer than those of any other country. It is the leading cause of cancer death in women over age 15, soon to be surpassed by lung cancer as more women smoke. I looked all this up later. All I knew then was that the monster had stalked in from the Halloween night and climbed up on the supper table and sneered its ugly, threatening grin at my wife, and I was powerless to chase it away.

Of all the emotions connected with this experience, this, I think is the hardest one for the spouse to deal with this sense of utter helplessness as your most-loved one goes down into the valley alone, without you, to slay the dragon. I would have to get used to being spectator and cheerleader while she made the arrangements to save her life. She was harsh with me only once. "Don't you dare," she ordered me that first night, "go calling the kids about this. There's no need for them to worry." (An exception was the doctor son.)

Next afternoon we were in the surgeon's office, listening to a vivid description of modified radical mastectomy. From there we went to the oncologist to consider the alternative of merely taking out the lump, rather than taking off the breast, and then treating the area with radiation. There are all manner of variations and complications I won't go into. But we felt a little like tourists haggling in an oriental bazaar, listening to the medicine men hawking their competing cures.

It was all correctly and professionally done and once she made it clear she wanted to weigh all alternatives, they cooperated fully with her. (Having a doctor son helped. Not that he had anything to do professionally with her treatment, but I think that having mothered one doctor, she feels completely competent to mother them all, so none intimidate her.) The sharpest irony was that she had to decide all by herself. Despite all the vast medical knowledge and doctor expertise and the millions invested in the elaborate medical center, no one could tell her for sure what she should do. She had to make the lonely decision herself, and bet her life on it. She wasted no time, chose the "lumpectomy," limited surgery, followed by radiation treatment and chemotherapy if necessary.

That depended, of course, on how far the dragon had roamed. So first there were tests liver scan, bone scan. That's when her anger first exploded at the cost. "And don't tell me it's all right because insurance covers it," she snorted. "That's the trouble with people," I tried to calm her. "Don't concern yourself," I blundered. "You've more important things to worry about."

"Oh," she said sarcastically. "You mean like dying?" I retreated in disorder.

The delay seemed interminable and dangerous. We took walks in the park and lay in the night with awkward efforts to talk. Actually it was only a week, until they were wheeling her down the corridor and she was waving goodbye through the drug fog, on her way to slay the dragon. The kids had all been told the night before. They should not, she finally agreed, be denied the privilege of prayer.

Then the doctor emerged to end my vigil. "It is the best we could have hoped," he said with satisfaction. "Malignant, but very small, no spreading to the lymphs. It should be nipped."

In four days she was home, sticking the drawings from her Head Start class on the refrigerator door, planning to get back to work simultaneously with starting the radiation treatment, arguing the senselessness of cooking a turkey with only two kids coming home.

Life would creep back to normal, except for fingers crossed, the Halloween dragon held at bay with a permanent Thanksgiving prayer.

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