A few weeks ago, I was invited to a party. It wasn't a birthday party, or an anniversary party, or a graduation party. It wasn't an engagement party, a baby shower party, a congratulations-on-getting-your-book-published party, or a retirement party. It wasn't the normal kind of occasion that inspires people to gather, with food and wine and cake, and celebrate.
No, this party was different. This party was a good-luck-on-your-upcoming-double- mastectomy-and-reconstruction party. And while it had all the trappings of a normal party -- lasagna, a few pot-luck salads, drinks, kids running around -- it wasn't, for all the obvious reasons, a normal party at all.
The party's guest of honor was a woman named Jen -- a friend of a close friend of mine also named Jen -- who had recently been diagnosed with breast cancer. My friend Jen had asked me if I'd be willing to talk to her friend Jen and before I knew it the New Jen and I were exchanging emails about her MRIs and meetings with breast surgeons and plastic surgeons. The waves of emailed information -- it's aggressive, it'll be a double mastectomy even though the cancer is only in one breast, there might be chemo and radiation, a lot will depend on the nodes, implants will be the method of reconstruction -- produced that familiar blur, the familiar haze of dread and non-reality in me that it undoubtedly produces in all of us when we are entering into someone else's bad dream: here was another young woman, with two young children and a husband, who was terrified that she might not see her kids grow up.
The New Jen, at the party, was the picture of health. Slim (hence the implants -- TRAM was not an option), stylish, and in possession of a great sense of humor, she was truly putting a good face on the situation: she was joking about her "new rack," uncomplaining about the possibility that she might, in the coming months, be wig shopping, and enjoying the closeness of her friends, the seven or eight young(ish) couples with whom she and her husband are connected through their childrens' preschool or elementary school or neighborhood playgroups. More than anything she was relieved: relieved that the several-month-long process of diagnosis and second opinions and surgical-option-decision-making was completed: she just wanted to get it over with. Already.
I couldn't help thinking, as I stood there, watching the New Jen, that despite the unpleasantness she was facing, she was lucky. Lucky to have the support of such close friends who were already signing up to help with playdates and meals. Lucky to have the support of a great husband who had in his possession a huge contact list of friends and family and was preparing for the obligatory post-op email updates. Lucky that, as bad as it was, it wasn't worse: her cancer was caught early(ish) and she would, in the end, survive it. As My Jen and her husband served cupcakes -- pretty pink cupcakes with raspberries in the center to look like breasts -- and the kids squealed, up way past their bedtimes and blissfully unaware of why we were all there -- I felt lucky, too, for all the same reasons.