Writer, mother, wife, volunteer, and survivor: PJ Hamel joins the breast cancer community bringing her stories, wisdom and optimism.
When asked what I do, I say I’m a writer. If you were to ask me what I am, the answer would be the same: a writer. I’ve been writing ever since I learned how to shape letters by copying the big A-B-C chart marching across the top of the blackboard in Mrs. Gardner’s first grade classroom. When I was 6 I wrote fairy tales, at 9 I wrote poems, at 13 I giggled a lot and furtively published a junior high underground newspaper, in college I wrote for the school paper, and since I’ve been in the working world, I’ve never earned my living any other way but writing. I’m very pleased to turn my hand to blogging, particularly blogging about breast cancer, and how it intersects with a woman’s life, turning it upside down and inside out before (hopefully) retreating into a dark dead-end at the end of some obscure capillary trail, never to return… hopefully.
Another thing that defines me is my New England-ness. Though born in Wisconsin, and having taken an early and brief tumble through New York, I truly grew up in Connecticut and Massachusetts, went to college in Rhode Island, got married and lived in Maine for 15 years, moved to New Hampshire, and then to Cape Cod, in Massachusetts. I currently telecommute to my job in Vermont. I’ve become intimately acquainted with the topographic quirks, the changeable weather, and the very different character of all six of these old and wonderful states. I’ve never left them for very long, and I don’t expect I ever will.
Maybe being a New Englander (and a Catholic) has given me a double dose of the “I’m guilty, punish me!” gene. We think we deserve the long, hard winters, the rocky soil, the high prices for everything from fuel oil and strawberries to real estate and daycare. Maybe that’s why, when I was diagnosed with invasive lobular breast cancer 5 years ago, I said “Well, OK, that makes sense.” Here I’d been enjoying a typical life – happily married, with a 15-year-old son, satisfying job writing catalogue copy and newsletters – and all the time wondering, what’s going to go wrong? Surely life can’t be this easy.
It wasn’t. Bad mammogram, ultrasound, needle biopsy, “I’m sorry I don’t have better news for you…” I had a lumpectomy, and when that didn’t do the trick, a mastectomy and reconstruction. A lymph node was involved: chemotherapy. Cancer had spread out of the node: radiation. More nodes were sampled during surgery: lymphedema. Hey, why not go the whole nine yards, enjoy the entire cancer experience? Heck, I even came down with pneumonia at the nadir of chemo treatment, when it had killed not only cancer cells, but my heroic white blood cells as well. I finally managed to emerge intact from the sterile hospital room where everyone who entered wore a mask, and even flowers couldn’t come in: too many germs! I dragged a hissing oxygen tank around with me all through Christmas that year.
Now, 11 years after treatment, I have a new life. I’m still happily married; my son is 26. I’m writing Web copy, e-mail newsletters, baking blogs, and cookbooks – including the 2004 James Beard Foundation Cookbook of the Year, “The King Arthur Flour Baker’s Companion.” I’m no Pollyanna – “My, it’s 30 degrees below zero today, isn’t that wonderful!” But after cancer, I decided to be a happy – well, happier – person. I ultimately can’t control much in my life, but I can control my attitude. And I choose to be happy, not miserable. Positive, not dreary. My dad, who died of cancer 7 years ago, had a motto that I try to follow: Every day, before noon, make someone smile. So I paste silly messages to the door at work, and everyone coming in starts the day with a laugh. I bake cookies and brownies for my workmates at the drop of a hat. Most important, I volunteer as a “breast cancer friend” at the local cancer center, so that I can reach out and hold the hands of women who are going through what I did.
Someone told me this just as I began treatment: “Cancer is a rock in the path; step over it, the path will still be there.” It’s true; if we’re lucky, life does go on. And when I reach out and help another woman over those rocks in the path, just as I was helped, I’m a link in the chain that stretches from here to eternity: women helping women through breast cancer.