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.