Tonight my husband

burst into tears on our way home from the Mexican restaurant where we had dinner. It was an odd thing for him to do, Scandinavian stoic that he is, since I am the one whose breast cancer biopsy came back positive. And so, as often happens in one’s life, the tea cakes I thought I was going to make this afternoon did not get made. (There are two sticks of butter in that recipe anyway, as Fencer pointed out. Perhaps it’s just as well.) Instead, I find myself making a list of the six most important things to know if you are the friend or loved one of somebody like me who gets news like this.

  • First, don’t cry in the car, if you can help it. It is a time for restraint. You don’t have to be cheery, but you’re not allowed to behave as though you’re at the funeral of someone who is actually very much alive.
  • Second, please don’t avoid the person who has gotten the bad news. It is not contagious.
  • Third, it is a welcome and good thing to ask what it is you might do for the person. When a work colleague went through something like this, only much scarier, she asked me to make chicken broth. It made me so happy to have something concrete to do for her. My husband’s first reaction was not to cry in the car. It was to say, You will have to be very clear about what you want from me. (He is inclined not to hear me the first time I ask for something, because I don’t wave my arms around and shout my message through a megaphone.) This is why I married him — he is a very good man and can be forgiven for a moment of weakness in the car.
  • It is fine to ask how the person is doing. In fact, it is much better to ask. Not speaking about something makes it seem scarier than speaking about it. I’m capable of saying as much or as little as I’d like, but I will not see an inquiry about how things are going as prying or weird. Others might. But I am not that sort of person.
  • Please remember that there are many other things to talk about than this. After you ask how things are going, it’s okay to change the channel to some other station. I have no plans to write only about this. I am still writing a novel (which, by the way, is set in Bavaria in the 1960s. Nobody gets breast cancer in it.) I am still interested in recipes and books and how we pack food for our voyages. I can’t imagine that changing.
  • I still have a sense of humor. It is okay to tell me jokes. In fact, if you can’t think of anything to say, a really bad pun will be just the right thing. For me, anyway.

As it turns out, I have a friend who is a breast cancer specialist at a really fine clinic in Boston. Thanks to him, I am going to a terrific doctor he knows in San Francisco. No more mop closets for this woman. Many women have had similar news after mammograms and biopsies. The cancer looks noninvasive, because it has been found early, even if it was found during what wins the prize as California’s worst biopsy ever. Although things can change on a closer look, for now I’m going to assume that’s what it is. Most of you know someone who’s been in just this position. The survival rate, if things are as they look now, is something like 98%.

I am, my friend told me, the poster child for mammography. There are many things I’ve wanted to be the poster child for — good mothering, fine writing, a decent lawyer and wife. This is not a poster I’d have volunteered to be on. Still, it is good to be reminded that we can’t always choose what is going to happen to us. That said, it is equally important to know that we can choose how we are going to behave along the way. For me, that means pretty much going on as usual, although I might make this news the occasion for dropping out of the more stressful parts of my life and filing up that space with more of the things I love doing: writing, being with my kids and family, cooking, taking pictures and, of course, packing peoples’ lunches for the journey away from home.


21 thoughts on “Tonight my husband

  1. Oh no…this is not good news but as of course you know breast cancer is very treatable especially when caught early. My aunt had it in 2003 and she just got back from a big trip to China and she is fine. I’m sending good healing vibes from New Zealand for what they are worth.

  2. I just read your description of the biopsy and it sounds horrendous. I am very sorry to hear your news. At least, out of all of this, you have a good doctor. I have run the gauntlet of the medical system in the past year and all I can say is: 1) get second, third and fourth opinions if you’re not satisfied with the first doctor’s approach, 2) trust your instincts. Miracles happen, believe me, although it sounds to me as if you are not in need of a miracle yet – as you say, the survival rate is 98%. That they have caught this early is good news.

    I don’t know any puns but I read the following funny verse from a poem while I was making the dinner tonight:

    In front of the mighty washing machine
    The small lady stood in a beautiful dream,
    “That these clothes so clean (oh what a relief)
    Must still be ironed, is my only grief.”

    It comes from “The Small Lady” by Stevie Smith.

    Sending you best wishes.

  3. It’s not because I have nothing else to say but just because… Here’s a bad pun for you.

    A young man was in love with two women and could not decide which of them to marry. Finally he went to a marriage counselor. When asked to describe his two loves, he noted that one was a great poet and the other made delicious pancakes.

    “Oh” said the counselor, “I see what the problem is. You can’t decide whether to marry for batter or verse.”

    “This is not a poster I’d have volunteered to be on.” This is not something any of us would volunteer for but I hope I would face a diagnosis like this with such grace and positivity.

    More of those positive thoughts coming from Australia…

  4. Kerryn, what a great pun. One love feeds your body, and one feeds your soul. If we’re lucky you find a person that does both.

    BL – we love you. Call if you can.

  5. For some reason, I just had this vision of the three of you women from the southern part of the world all drinking tea in Make Tea Not War’s kitchen. Thank you all for the good wishes — and the jokes!

    hey Sue — I will!

    Cheers, BL

  6. Southern? Well, Missouri did fight for the south.. but I’m not sure I’d consider myself sourthern..

    Although there was this one time in first grade when I came home and said “Ya’ll.” Mom was horrified. 🙂

  7. I’m so sorry to hear this. But I’m glad that you found a good doctor, that’s so important, in more than just the medical sense. I wish I had a bad pun for you (or maybe even a good one), but I can’t remember any. The first one I hear is yours.

  8. Oh Lily, I am so sorry to hear this. But I am glad to hear that you have such a good doctor and that the prognosis is so good.

    I’m afraid I don’t have any good puns right now, but please please do let me know if I can do anything. I would really be happy to. I may not work nearby anymore, but I live not 20 minutes from you and I’d be happy to come by with good food, a good book, or whatever else you might want.

    Take care Lily — I’ll email you my home number.

  9. Hi Lily – that is indeed bad news, I’m so sorry to hear that. I am counting on that the good doctor is going to do his very very best to help you and that he is nice to you (if not beam me up and I’ll have a word with him) and that everything is going to be alright.

    I am sending you some good and positive vibes from London. They can do miracles, so I hope they help you too.

    Best Wishes, also from the pirate.

  10. BL

    You are in my thoughts and prayers. I have known many women with varying degrees of breast anomalies. Every one of them are doing fine and are as vibrant as ever. Today’s sophistication of consultation (and intervention if needed) is astounding and moves forward with each passing day.

    I recently discovered you and have begun recommending your blog to the literary and culinary people in my life.

    Regarding your biopsy experience, sadly it is typical. Your suggestion for raising the consciousness of the doctors was very funny and wise.
    While we are at it let’s strap in all the Health Care Administrators, QA “experts”, and medical equipment designers.

    Don’t let the unenlightened/ignorant get you down. Just as you may run into an unenthused librarian now and then, it has nothing to do with the outcome – that is, the pleasure of a rewarding read for both you and the universe at large.


  11. Hi, Lily! Its been awhile and I am sad that its now that I am given the chance to say hello. I know I can’t do much but pray, let me know if there is anything more I can do for you. Love ya, Becky

  12. Hello all, You are so kind! Jokes, good wishes, such wonderful thoughts about how the health care system works or doesn’t. It’s a rich, rich lot of people who check in here. I got through to the doctor at UCSF, and am getting set up with a plan, so I can return to my regularly scheduled life. Every once in a while I’m sure there will be something interesting to say about all this. Someone said to me today that this sort of thing really changes your life. I imagine it takes a while to see if that’s so. But I think life changes are good — even if they come from something bad. Anyway, it’s afternoon here in California, and I’m about to make raspberry jam and tea cakes and read that Alan Furst novel.

    best to all of you, Lily

  13. Hi Lily. You have a great outlook and sense of humor to help us be with you. Smokey
    Q. How do you introduce a speaker who always says his audience is so disreputable that they deserve his bad puns?
    A. A standup karmic

  14. I think you have a point about the life changes. It might be a healthy idea as well. When my mother-in-law got breast cancer (very short story: diagnosis almost too late > best doctors in Poland > revolutionary therapy > clean now for two years) she was told to especially avoid stress (even after therapy), since it reduces resistance. Also, to take lots of vitamin C and drink at least a pint of buttermilk a day. But I guess you’re already taking one of the best medicins: optimism.
    No puns yet, sorry. I can remember one, but it’s in German…

  15. I’m just so glad to hear that you have caught this early. I am immensely impressed by your strength and good humour and you can see by these comments how much we are all proud of you and rooting for you. All I can really say is that I’ll be working on writing some cracking posts to entertain and distract you in the months to come. I’ll try and put a ‘bloglily’ moment in each one to make you smile.

  16. What news. I didn’t know how to properly describe the news…I thought about distessing, but you are so optimistic that that word doesn’t seem right.. I am glad it has been caught early – and I actually work for a comprehensive cancer center and while I am far, far away from you and you are at a better hospital, if you ever need me to say, look up words for you or find out more about treatment, don’t hesitate to ask. I mean, I get paid crap so this is one of the perks. Again though, you sound as though are in excellent hands.

    You know, the other day I was looking at your blog for the first time (after reading your comments on litloves site) and when I returned to my own site, you had commented! It was like kismet, or something – we were reading each ot her at the very same time! I am not yet good at responding to comments on my blog, I screw it up, but should improve that soon.
    In the meantime, you have a beautiful blog here and I am looking forward to hearing about those tea cakes! I love the idea of rescued recipes – I think it’s stunning. And your writing is fantastic.
    I look forward to reading more. Take care of yourself.

  17. Hey Smokey — That’s a very nice joke. Thank you.

    Edwin — All of those things are wonderful prescriptions, particularly the stress reduction one. I know it’s a little weird, but I’m very much looking forward to my life slowing down a bit.

    Oh Litlove, that’s so, well.. lovely. Your posts are magnificent and have really inspired me. Thank you for that.

    Welcome Courtney — I’m very happy you came by. I’ve been enjoying your writing too! And thank you so very much for your offer of assistance. (I’m sorry they pay you crap by the way. That’s just not right. For some reason, the people who do the most good often get paid the least.) And I will be in touch if there’s anything I don’t get. I’m really grateful to you for offering this.

    Love to all,


  18. I think it is homemade. (In fact, I know it is.) By the way, Smokey is a fine poet (just like you!) Sometime, he will have to share something with us. Cheers! BL

  19. Dear Lily and FansOfLily
    There was some question whether my last note in #14 above about the Standup Karmic was homemade or not. The two Q&A below should put that question to rest in case anyone has missed your insight or your contributions to human togetherness, which I realized as such not only from your essays on writing and most everything else you write, but even in your raspberry jam making. I do have a poem on raspberry jam which I know is well preserved somewhere in my office, under or behind something, and will hopefully find its way to your Lunchboxes, Rescued Recipes, or Jam, or maybe your Lagniappe shelf would be just right. Smokey

    Q. Why did the universe deal me a rotten candied apple?
    A. Caramel kickback.

    And for a little physics to brighten your day and in honor of the discoverer of the bruised apple:

    A. What is Newton’s 3rd law of motion?
    Q. To every action there is an equal and contrary cartoon on the cover of The New Yorker.

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