I never planned to write a breast cancer memoir. Never planned to get the cancer that would inspire it. But in January 2006, my first novel was on submission and hadn’t sold yet. In the meantime I’d written a second novel about a woman who finds a lump in her breast and thinks she might have breast cancer and wonders if she’s lived a meaningful life. I sent it off to my then-agent and went in for my annual mammogram and was told it was “suspicious.” A week later I was having surgery and while I was waiting for my own results, I received an e-mail from my agent (who didn’t know about my health scare) that said something like, I don’t really like the breast cancer novel. I’m not sure I care whether that woman has breast cancer or not. Ouch!
But the writing disappointment was a minor blip compared to how the diagnosis rocked my world and shattered my sense of self. I was about the healthiest person I knew. I never got sick. No aches or pains. I ran. I practiced yoga. I ate mostly vegetarian, whole grain and organic. I was the person others consulted for health and anti-aging tips.
I felt like a fake, a fraud. Even after I was told I had the “good” cancer, it was non-invasive and they got it all out, I felt panicked and paralyzed. I couldn’t write, couldn’t think, couldn’t do anything other than stare out the window at my garden not yet in bloom and Google health sites and obsess about recurrence rates. And make homemade batches of organic facial creams with stuff like shea butter and jojoba oil. I thought about starting an organic facial cream company for vain hypochondriacs like me. I asked my husband to bring home an electro magnetic field measurer (I’m still waiting for that… do those even exist?). I suggested we move to Utah and live off the land (even though I don’t know the first thing about gardening or farming, my husband reminded me).
Finally, after weeks and weeks of this, my husband pressed a journal into my hands and said, “You have to write this down.” I shook my head. I was not a journal keeper, never had been and I did not want to write any of this down. But one day I picked up the journal and a pen and without even thinking, I wrote: “I’m sitting topless in the oncologist’s office on Valentine’s Day. Cancer is a Bitch.”
Once I started writing, the words flooded out. I shook and wept and fell asleep and woke up and wrote some more. The ironic thing is, as I poured those raw, intimate thoughts out, I thought, I will never EVER show those words to anyone. I thought writing them down was a way I didn’t have to burden my friends and family with my crazy thoughts. (And now you can go buy them in hardcover or my newly released paperback and I hope you will!) Eventually, I wrote those thoughts into an essay I called "Cancer Is a Bitch" and sent it to some trusted writer friends who said it was powerful and I should do something with it. But what was it? What would I do with it?
Soon after that, I read that Literary Mama was looking for columnists and on a whim I pitched the idea of a breast cancer mama column and they said yes and I started writing “Bare-breasted Mama.” To be honest, it was painful to write and I felt naked, like I was exposing myself both physically and emotionally. But the responses from readers were so soulful and many hadn’t even had cancer but they either knew someone who had or were just responding to the midlife issues about motherhood and marriage and career that I wrote about. They thanked me for making them laugh (because believe it or not the book is funny!) and cry and think. Their words gave me the courage to keep writing and opening up and eventually to leave my then agent and pitch the idea of a breast cancer memoir to a new agent.
Next thing I knew I had a new agent, a new book, a new lease on life.
That was three-and-a-half years ago and my life has changed dramatically since then. I have not only launched my writing career, but also have launched two daughters off to college, watched my son turn into a skateboarding teen, run two half marathons, am in training for my first full marathon (in a few weeks!). I have also become a professional speaker and college and medical school lecturer. Plus I feel stronger and healthier, and more sure of who I am and where I am headed, than ever before in my life.
And in the midst of all this life hurtling forward, I made more discoveries. I discovered I could get up in front of other people and share my story with strangers and stand with survivors in solidarity and hold their hands in mine and hope I could give them hope. More significantly, the beauty and wisdom and raw truth I saw in their eyes filled me with hope and a newfound respect for the courage of the human condition and fueled me to not be afraid to share more of myself and be the person I meant to be and live the life I meant to live.
For me that means running my first marathon in a few weeks (oy!), the release of the paperback version of Cancer Is a Bitch, and more speaking and lecturing and a new book in the works and fewer whys and more why nots. And taking more time to gather family and friends around my old pine harvest dining room table overflowing with vases of hydrangeas from the garden still in bloom and good food and stories and hearty laughter and the gratitude and joy of being.
Gail Konop Baker writes from her home in Madison, Wisconsin. Her memoir, Cancer Is a Bitch, is available in paperback this month.