Reflections on What it Means to be a Breast Cancer Survivor

PJ Hamel Health Guide
  • Last fall, I was asked to speak at a meeting of the health care community at my local hospital, Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, N.H. The evening was centered on hospital/patient communications, and was the culmination of many months of work involving everyone from floor nurses and doctors, to IT folks and financial reps, to the hospital’s top brass.


    I was there representing the patients upon whom all of these professionals focus their work efforts. And as I stepped to the mike, sketchy notes clutched in my sweaty hand–-despite years of practice, I still get butterflies speaking in front of large groups–-I experienced a profoundly emotional moment of thanks.

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    “Look at all these people,” I thought to myself. “They work every day to help strangers, people they’ve never met before. They’re life-savers–literally. Thank God for them.”


    I spoke for 10 minutes, much of which was spent on the topic they’d assigned me: “How can we, as a hospital, communicate better with you, our patients?” I brought up a few points, chief of which was, Don’t drop a bombshell on someone and then expect them to hear the rest of the message. When you tell a woman she has cancer, give her 10 minutes to absorb it before launching right into the confusing mélange of oncologists, radiologists, surgery dates, chemo options… 


    At the end I added my thanks to each and every one of them for the positive way in which they touch people’s lives every day. But time ran out on me; my message was too short. So, better late than never, here’s what I wish I’d said.


    I want to thank all of you sitting in this auditorium, as well as the 9,000+ other employees at this hospital, for saving my life. Without you, I wouldn’t be standing here; without you, I’d be just a memory, a name on a headstone, a fading byline in a stack of old newsletters.


    Without your care, my husband would be a widower, eating dinner alone at the table, listening for a loving voice that, after 30 years, is no more. Without your excellent care, my son would have lost his mother at 15, way too young, teetering on that thin edge between little boy and grown man. Even now, he’s still got enough boy in him to want a hug from his mother. Thank you for my loving arms still wrapped tight around his shoulders.


    Had I not been a patient at this hospital, my 80-year-old mother would have had to live through the death of a second daughter. No mother should lose even one child; I don’t think I could have borne the sadness, had I known she would lose me, too. Who would call her every day, ask her how she was feeling, explain to her (again) how to use her cell phone? Who would make sure she was coping all right with the loss of both her husband and younger child–my dad and sister–in the space of just 2 years?


    Thank you for letting my mom keep her last daughter.


    My friends thank you for letting me stay in their midst. The women I work with, the folks whose lives I casually touch through my job, everyone who depends on me for a smile, a joke, advice, or wide shoulders to lean on–they all thank you.


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    Finally, I thank you, for myself. I’m not ready to die. I have books to write, trails to hike, and long conversations with friends, yet to happen. I need to see my son grown up; I want to have a daughter-in-law, and grandchildren, more family to hug.


    There will be many women with cancer that I need to touch. I can help each one turn her potential death sentence into the start of a new life.


    Life lived to its fullest, as only those who’ve stared at death can live it. You gave me the ultimate gift: a second chance. It’s the best gift I’ve ever had. And so, though the words can’t possibly do justice to what I feel, I stand here before you tonight, and say, simply, thank you.


Published On: April 26, 2007