summer that I turned twenty-nine, we decided to get pregnant. Instead,
I got cancer.
I have asked people many times how they would start their own autobiography and nobody has ever come up with as good of an opening line as that, except perhaps Melville or God (but I didn’t really ask them). I am not writing this to tell people about how to have cancer with dignity or how to cure their cancer with positive thinking. This is about my life with cancer. It’s about how I lived and how—probably—I will die. I’m writing it down now so that one day my daughter will have something to read and so that maybe she can get a sense of who I was, since the chances that she will know me are getting slimmer and slimmer.
Here's the short version, which is pretty long anyway… When I was twenty-eight, I wanted to have a baby. Andy and I had been married about four years. We discussed having a baby and decided to wait one more year. Andy was going to quit his job and try to make it as an artist for a year. A year is not much time to try to make it as an artist, but it was all the time we thought we could spare. We needed to get a house or at least a bigger apartment. We wanted to have children, the house—all the middle class things. So, we could only sensibly afford to wait a year. Andy and I never do anything that is not sensible. So, for a year, he tried to sell his artwork. And I pined for a baby.
At the end of the year, we began looking for a house. Andy got his old job back in publishing. We started having unprotected sex. I had never had sex without birth control in my entire life. I am such a good girl that even though I "lost my virginity" when I was sixteen and still in high school, I always used birth control. Back in 1979, we didn't worry about AIDS (we were lucky) and my high school boyfriend was a virgin, too. I suppose he could have been lying about that, but I had been going with the same guy for three years and we saw each other almost every day during that time. I was reasonably certain that he had never had sex. Anyway, I had a diaphragm from Planned Parenthood the first time I ever had sex with anyone and by the summer of my twenty-ninth birthday, I had had sex many times (mostly with my husband) and had never once done without some form of birth control.
I had also lost weight. I decided that it was a good idea to eat right, lose weight, begin exercising, and generally be healthy before I got pregnant. So I was much thinner than I had been since college. Maybe it was because I was thinner that I noticed a bulge in my abdomen. I went to the doctor, who said I had fibroid tumors in my uterus. He said that it happens all the time and that he could remove them, repair the uterus, and have us back to trying to get pregnant in a few months. We decided to have surgery right away. I'll talk more about my doctor, Kenneth Edelin, later. But, briefly, he said there was a one in 200 chance that the tumors could turn out to be cancerous. He knew that I wanted to have a baby. He swore to me that he would only do a hysterectomy to save my life.
I was terrified. I had never been in the hospital before. I was scared. They took my glasses away and I could not see anything. I remember the doctor taking my hand in the operating room and telling me not to worry.
When I woke up, I guess I was in the recovery room. I went back to sleep. The next thing I remember was waking up in a hospital room. Andy was there. I was so glad to see him. I asked him something that I don't remember, but he says that I asked him if the operation went okay. He could answer truthfully that it had gone okay. I fell back to sleep. Later, Dr. Edelin came into the room and took my hand.
"I don't have a needle in my back," I said, referring to the epidural that I was supposed to have had.
"That is just one of the things that went wrong today," Edelin said.
"What do you mean?" I asked. I looked at Andy.
Edelin told me that the fibroid tumors had turned out to be cancerous and that he had done a hysterectomy. I don't remember much else about that moment. I remember thinking that he meant that I was never going to have a baby. And I remember thinking that I would be dead in a few weeks.
Later that night, my mother and my stepfather showed up. Mommy kissed me hello. I don't know at what point in the conversation this happened, but I asked her to call my daddy and tell him that I had cancer. (I had not spoken to my father in a couple of years. Nothing had happened; there was no big fight or falling out. We just simply stopped calling and seeing each other. Dad didn't seem to care. Every once in a while, I would wonder what I had done to make him hate me. But I was afraid to call and ask him. I was afraid he would not care.) When I asked them to tell my daddy that I had cancer, they all sighed with relief. It turns out that they had already called him and he was coming to Boston the next day. Andy thought that I might be angry that they had called him, so everyone was relieved when I asked them to tell Dad. I really did not expect him to come to Boston. But I kept thinking that I was going to die in a few weeks and that it might be really difficult to hear that your daughter is dead without a little warning. I thought if they called Dad and told him that I was sick, then they could call him back when I died a couple of weeks later and it wouldn't come as such a shock. It wasn't the most coherent thought process, but I was on morphine after all and had just found out that I had cancer. I guess I wasn't thinking all that clearly.