Using A Cancer Diagnosis to Appreciate Life

PJ Hamel Health Guide

  • Getting diagnosed with cancer in your 40s isn't a death sentence; it's simply a wakeup call to enjoy your life even more, and that means good times with friends. PJ (center) with two new friends at a recent cancer survivor's weekend.

    One of the great features on this site is its SharePosts,
    where folks can post questions, thoughts, links to online articles of interest, and just generally make connections with people all over the world, men and women alike, all of whom have one burning interest in common: breast cancer.

    A recent sharepost from Sarah provided a link to an article in The Washington Post, a fascinating look at a recent three-day breast cancer conference in Arlington, Virginia. For once, this wasn’t a gathering of eminent researchers and oncologists, presenting the results of clinical studies, and papers filled with multi-syllabic medicalese. No, journalist Emily Wax writes about an annual three-day celebration of young women living with breast cancer sponsored by Young Survival Coalition.
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    As Wax sums up, the gathering is “as close as you can get to having cancer and still partying.” Between workshops such as "How to Get Your Groove Back: Dating After Breast Cancer," and "Reawakening Venus: Reclaiming and Embracing Your Sexual Self," women dance, laugh, hug, shave each other’s newly balding heads, and model colorful LymphaDiva compression sleeves. Sounds like a blast–I wish I’d been there. Alas, I’m an old hag of 53, and thus don’t qualify for this 40-and-under gathering.

    One sentence in Wax’s story struck an uncomfortable chord with me: “Treatment can be as disturbing and isolating as the diagnosis since the cancer ward is often filled with much older women, including grandmothers who talk about how relieved they are that at least they got a chance to see their grandchildren born.” Does being over 40 years old make me “much older,” a “grandmother” waiting for my grandchildren to be born? Funny, I don’t FEEL that old.

    In fact, 78 percent of women are over the age of 50 when first diagnosed. And four percent are under the age of 40: Young Survivors Coalition® material. Then there are the rest of us, the 18 percent diagnosed somewhere between ages of 40 and 50. Too old to party, or to be interested in getting our groove back, apparently; too young to talk about the grandkids. What marks our group?

    I’ll tell you what: a big red STOP sign. Most of us between 40 and 50 are at the height of our careers, well settled in our marriages (or enjoying the sweet bloom of a second marriage), already mothers (if motherhood’s in the cards), and not yet taking care of ailing parents. The years between 40 and 50 are wonderful, powerful, fulfilling, FUN.

    The growing up part’s behind us; we know our way around relationships, mortgages, and evil bosses. We’ve developed the deepest friendships we’ll ever have: those with other women. And retirement is WAY out there in the future.

    And suddenly, cancer puts the brakes on everything. Treatment destroys all the hard work we’ve done to stay in shape, and the days and weeks missed at work knocks us off the promotion track. Cancer robs us of time with our needy teenagers, puts our spouses to the test, and can poke a big hole in our savings accounts, through which years of hard-earned money drains as the bills mount up. Cancer puts an end to the blissful certainty that we’ll live forever, or at least till we’re 90. Cancer, when it hits you in your 40s, casts a major pall over a decade that SHOULD be perhaps the most fulfilling, the most satisfying, of your entire life.

  • Tell you what, Emily: all of us middle-age types don’t really need to worry about fertility issues, it’s true. But neither are we sitting around waiting for grandchildren to be born. We’re vibrant, successful, powerful, happy women who’ve been thrown a terrible curve: breast cancer. And we resent its presence in our lives just as much as those Gen Xers partying down in Arlington.
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Published On: March 08, 2007