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Dispatch From a Dark Place

by Carolyn Schuk

On September 11, 2001 the 1990s ended, preceded by lesser endings.

The millennium passed either nine months or a year and nine months before. The dot-com bubble had imploded and the stock market had begun its inexorable dive more than a year before. All was not well in the sanctuaries of high technology. September 11 delivered the definitive message that this dance was over.

The definitive end of the 1990s came for me on August 28, 2001, a day my son started the fifth grade. It was the day I learned all was not well with the breast biopsy I had the week before.

The excised tissue showed "foci of predominantly ductal carcinoma in situ." It had "both cribriform and solid patterns with focal comedo necrosis." The nuclei had "moderate to high grade malignant nuclear features." There was "one focus of early invasion with thin cords and individual cells which infiltrate a desmoplastic stroma."

"I'm sorry to be telling you this," the doctor says. "Most people want the bad news first thing." You cannot go gently into that good night.

I reach my husband as he is driving Willie to Toys R Us. I say "I have cancer."

Bill deposits Willie at a friend's house armed with a new Gundam Warrior and no idea that his "little mama" is in the clutch of a monster far more terrifying than any that inhabit Dragon Ball Z, Digimon, Warcraft, or even Diablo II a singularly objectionable entertainment we've recently argued about.

The doctor tells me a lot of things about lumpectomy and mastectomy and J-wires and sentinel nodes and excision. I am, she says, an "excellent candidate for breast conservation treatment." I have an "excellent prognosis for long-term survival."

I think about this new perspective of the rest of my life: "long-term survival."

My pursuit of excellence makes me excellent at reading menus. I decide to take one from column A and one from column B: the lumpectomy and the radiation. Countless pilgrims have made these Stations of the Cross before me.

In the literature of cancer, this is where the crying starts.

When you are diagnosed with cancer, cancer writing becomes your prayer book, your daily office. Like a monk you faithfully mark the liturgical hours of your involuntary vocation with the canticles and sacred texts of the cancer library.

Cancer writing is literature as heroic confrontation. I write, therefore I will not die. As with the blossoming of American flags on lapels and windows and car antennas after September 11, we seek ways to regain a sense of control gone astray. And we believe - indeed, will ourselves to believe - that gestures can put control back into our hands, can prevent the cancer cells from growing, can keep young men intent on suicidal glory from our doors.

Cancer literature is relentlessly literature of the successful and affluent. Cancer patient heroes are framed in the radiance of their current or former glories: Olympic skier, fashion model, career pilot, intellectual property attorney. What about Rosa the maid at the Holiday Inn or Josť the day laborer? Where is their chapter in the sacred writing of cancer?

At this point in the heroic story, the formula requires that I tell you how my life has been transformed by cancer, how I have become a better person with reordered priorities. I confess, at first I believed this and looked for a brave new life to reveal itself to me.

Now, optimists say suffering is transformative and it is at the foot of the cross that you find God. But my report from the foot is that nothing changes - unless, of course, by transformation you mean staying what you are only more so with everything else changing for the worse.

No profoundly meaningful new career has opened up for me through the agency of deciding to spend my life doing what I really want to do. Like, Rosa and Josť I too still pursue the same career - and like them, I do it if I'm lucky enough to find work. Like those waiting to hear the good news after September 11, I too still wait.


Note from the author: This was written about 6 months after my diagnosis, in early 2002, when I was sunk in a deep depression. Have things changed? Yes, although I did not see it at the time - I only see it now, from the vantage point of having climbed a significant distance up the mountain of personal re-invention. It's been a long haul, but I see a light and I'm pretty sure it's not an oncoming train.

A native of Brooklyn, NY, Carolyn is Assistant Editor at the Santa Clara Weekly. In addition to her role as at the Weekly, she is a regular contributor on technology topics to the Silicon Valley Business Journal and writes a daily column at Voxilla.com. Carolyn lives in Santa Clara with her husband, 15 year old son, and their attack cat. In addition to writing, Carolyn loves music and sings with the St. Ann Choir of Palo Alto, a group dedicated to Gregorian Chant and Renaissance polyphony.