TGIF: Enjoying Life as a Breast Cancer Survivor

PJ Hamel Health Guide


  • Last Friday I sat in a local restaurant, surrounded by TGIF revelers. My town is home to a small college and a large hospital. This particular Ivy League college is very well endowed, and is a large and beneficent employer; and over 9,000 people work at the hospital. Between them (to say nothing of the infrastructure of a typical middle-class community –- the schools, the retailers, town workers) there’s never a shortage of folks looking to leave work a few minutes early on Friday to stake out a spot at their favorite watering hole.

    Truth be told, I don’t often join that crowd. I’m busy; I love my work, and often have a hard time tearing myself away from my desk, even late on a Friday. Plus, since cancer (chemo, radiation, tamoxifen, Arimidex –- who knows the particular culprit?), a single glass of wine not only gives me a buzz, but a mini-hangover the next day, for crying out loud. Fun ain’t what it used to be!
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    Still, once a month I shut down my computer at 4:15 p.m., drive the 3 miles into town, and breeze into Molly’s. It’s what we used to call a “fern bar” with dim lighting, hanging plants, a busy bar on one side, dark wood tables and a brick oven on the other. The place is always filled with an eclectic mix of college kids proudly flashing IDs (Hell yeah, I’m 21!); older folks enjoying an early-bird special, and working people breathing a big sigh of relief (the week’s over!) and anticipation (the weekend’s here!): TGIF.

    I walk to the back of the room, bypassing the hostess at the desk, to an especially long table nestled into a corner. Four women see me, and their faces light up; I smile a greeting. This is OUR personal TGIF; women with breast cancer, enjoying each other, treasuring life.

    Over the course of the next 30 minutes, seven more women arrive. Two are fairly new to the group, precipitating introductions all around. “Hi, Elizabeth, this is Amy, and Deb, and Wendy, and Mary... Hi, we haven’t met…”  But there’s no stiff awkwardness, no “this is our group and you’re an outsider.” We share that immediate hard-and-fast bond, the one developed over weeks or months in waiting areas, hospital rooms, chemo infusion suites. We’re breast cancer women, sisters in survival.

    We’re all at different stages, in our lives, and in our cancer. Beth is in the midst of chemo; she JUST lost her hair, and is getting used to a wig. “Did you know it’s adjustable?” asks Karen. “Here, let me show you.” Another woman, Susan, shows off her tram flap reconstruction (click on the link to see an illustration), pulling her turtleneck tight and sticking out her chest. We giggle, back in middle school, comparing “who’s got what.” “Hey, that really hangs nicely,” I tell her. “It bounces naturally, too.” We all stare as she bounces a bit, then we laugh. I catch strange glances from the table next to ours, but none of us cares.

    Modesty flew out the window long ago, banished by interns, doctors, nurses, radiation techs… heck, even med students got a good look at our naked breasts. After that, what’s a little jiggling with your clothes on? Suzanne shoots her arms up into the air, looking like a football referee signaling a touchdown. “Look at my range of motion!” she crows. We applaud, knowing exactly, intimately, her accomplishment. And gradually the talk evolves to work, kids, travel plans, gardening, food… subjects mirrored at TGIF tables of women all over America.

  • That’s the nice thing about cancer. It makes us special, in one another’s eyes. We KNOW what we’ve been through; we are one another’s heroes. And at the same time, we embrace normalcy. Some of us have our lives back; some of us are struggling to get there. But wherever we are on the path we know that once a month, on a Friday afternoon, we can sit companionably around a table, sip $2 margaritas, and feel the understanding, acceptance, and unconditional love that’s the hallmark of breast cancer conquerors. Worth the cost of a Saturday-morning headache? You betcha!
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Published On: June 29, 2007