I hear that a friend of Kim’s was recently diagnosed with breast cancer. My heart sinks at the news, even though I don’t know who she is. I’m sure she already has her own network of friendly support and commiseration. Nonetheless, I offer to do whatever I can for her—exchange emails if she wants, for instance—just in case. Instant solidarity based on shared affliction may sound like a cliche, but you realize that it’s become a cliche because the ages-old truth in it has been worked to no end.
Knowing your disease is important. But it's not just a matter of knowledge. Breast cancer is such a public disease that googling alone will provide you with an overwhelming amount of information. I devoured whatever I could get my hands on in the first few weeks after my diagnosis. But only a very limited amount of medical discourse and statistical data helps you cope with the catastrophe that has become your everyday life. Statistics is especially tricky. You’d like to learn the 5-year survival rate, 10-year survival rate of your particular subtype of cancer. Inevitably, however, in the process you also get to learn the recurrence rate, the mortality rate of your particular age or ethnicity group. Your refusal to be reduced to a piece of data won’t effectively prevent your wondering where in that pie chart or graph or table you’d fit eventually. This can undo you at a stroke, because, being that one woman out of eight, deep down you think the odds are already against you. Especially if you’re that one woman with the triple negative breast cancer unlike the other nine women with other, less difficult subtypes of breast cancer, wouldn’t you think the odds are really against you? It’s hard to say what particular good it did me to learn about the TNBC’s higher recurrence rate in the 3rd to 5th year period.
What did me good, on the other hand, was the things I learned from other women with cancer. During my first chemo infusion, the woman in the next bed, who looked about my age, almost determined the ways in which I took my own chemotherapy. Seeing that I was as tightly wound as possible, she asked me whether it was my first. She was having her fifth. Only two years older than me, she had colon cancer. Not exactly the most inviting personality in general, I was in no mood for conversation. But she kept talking. I never could understand why some sick people just assumed that other sick people would openly discuss their sickness with anyone. My slow, inexpressive responses didn’t deter her, however. When the nurse from the oncology department left me with the booklet about the side effects, diet, exercise and so on, the woman in the next bed again turned to me. “You won’t throw up. You’ll lose appetite, but with antemetics these days you don’t throw up.” I still didn’t feel like talking but I could gladly do without one of the most upsetting images about chemotherapy. “Eat whatever you want and keep your strength up. It’s a cycle of good days and bad days. You’ll be fine on good days, fine enough to go out with friends and stuff.” She was actually answering some of the questions I had asked the nurse. The nurse gave me a lot of helpful general information, but this co-patient’s first-hand report was in fact much better than the nurse’s noncommittal “every patient can react differently” spiel. And she told me many things besides, including what she liked to eat, how she was dealing with particular symptoms, etc. She wasn’t invading my privacy. She was instead forgoing her privacy to help me with what I was in for. In the end, she told me that it wasn’t easy but “bearable” (her exact word) and showed me that it was possible to carry on with life, with the chemo as part of it. And she wasn’t being a hero or a cheerleader, either. That was good to know, truly. If someone who was going through nine infusions could say that it was bearable and make it believable, it meant that I’d be OK with my six infusions. Weeks and months into the chemo, I realized that there were many things that professional medical discourse didn’t, couldn’t, prepare me for. But I often thought of this co-patient’s reassuring word and demeanor. Symptoms and side effects came and went, and I believed that all those things were bearable—and they were.
Three weeks after my last infusion, I was sitting in front of the Breast Cancer Center at the KUMC (Korea University Medical Center) for the ultrasound and a CT scan. I noticed the woman next to me burning a hole in my face with her stare. By that time I was too used to my own sickly face to be very self-conscious, but her stare reminded me that I indeed looked awful. I was annoyed and turned around with a terrible, accusing look. When our eyes met, she said: “The eyebrows go, too? No one told me about the eyebrows.” With such absent-minded despondence in her face. She had had her first infusion only a few days before. Memories of my first day were still fresh. I said that no one had told me about the eyebrows and eyelashes either, and that I hadn’t even realized that they were gone until there were only four or five strands left. I found myself saying things to her. “Losing hair is nothing to worry about. I feel better than I look.” Without meaning to, I suddenly turned into that woman in the next bed from a year before, and was basically telling her that it was going to be “bearable.”
I had another friend who helped me with the details of her experience from five years ago too. Since hers was the TNBC like mine, her successful cope record is particularly meaningful to me. Though she was temporarily living in Brazil until a few months ago, she was another woman in the next bed to me with her long-distance support. For another friend—this is an old friend’s wife—I’ve been the woman in the next bed most willingly since her diagnosis last June. Everybody knows at least one person who has or had breast cancer and it’s one of the first things they would tell you. Most of the times such remarks don’t amount to much, but connecting with that person might actually help. I guess that’s why there are support groups on and off line everywhere. My own personal chain of “women in the next bed” attaches me to these co-patients. All the more so, as I never forget that still early in our occurrence history we’re copers rather than survivors just yet. I hope Kim’s friend is coping well. I hope my friend’s wife will sail through her last infusion in two weeks. Every time I think of them I root for them and root for myself. In commiseration I root for all the copers and all the women in the next bed.