October 4, 2001
Beyond Breast Cancer
I cannot think of many books I have read with a title as lengthy as Marisa and Ellen Weiss' "Living Beyond Breast Cancer: A Survivor's Guide for When Treatment Ends and the Rest of Your Life Begins." Nor can I think of many with a title so apt. For the last year I have wondered when, if ever, my life would return to normalcy. Since my mother's mammogram showed what all women hope that their mammograms won't, she has wondered when, if ever, her life would be as untroubled as she hoped it would be at 57.
My mother, Ana Maria Teresa Amparo Irueste Alejandre de Montes, was first diagnosed with cancer in the summer of 1994, the year I graduated from high school. Her diagnosis coincided with my family's move from Redlands, Calif., to Colorado Springs, Colo.
She had a lumpectomy and underwent several months of radiation treatments. While my mother was still completing her treatments, I began my first year at Dartmouth College a difficult task for a pampered mama's boy and an only child whose extended family lives outside the United States.
After several years of living cancer-free, my mother was given disturbing news. The results of a biopsy ordered after her troubling mammogram demonstrated that she had invasive breast cancer. Multiple medical opinions all concluded the same thing: a double mastectomy was urgently advised. Because four of the 21 surrounding lymph nodes removed from the left breast area were malignant, my mother rang in the millennium by trying to recover from surgery and prepare herself for intense chemotherapy.
To be with her at this time, my 90-year-old grandmother came to visit my mother in late December. Needless to say, my grandmother, who had to be wheeled around in the airport, was not able to assist my mother much with the cooking of meals, yard upkeep, house cleaning, laundry or grocery shopping, so I did those things. I took care of them both.
I lived in my parents' house and attended to all of the aforementioned, while also changing my mother's bandages, washing her hair, and driving her and my grandmother wherever they needed to go. These were all good experiences for me. As a caretaker, I had some sense that I wasn't completely impotent in the face of my mother's struggle.
But my "everything-is-going-to-be-all right" bubble burst in February. After my grandmother's visit ended, I began to search for a new home in Los Angeles. Since my mother was nearly self-sufficient by the end of January, I decided that it was time for me to return to life as usual. I found a place in Sherman Oaks, signed a lease and moved out.
Right after I did this, my father left my mother, after 33 years of marriage, for a woman 20 years younger.
My mother's battle against breast cancer became more complicated. Her chemotherapy sessions were often delayed because of her white blood cells' low counts. She had to sell her house, move out of her home before finding a new one, have me store all her belongings in the living room of my apartment and borrow some of my furniture. It wasn't until well into April that my mother finally got settled in an apartment. She did fairly well until mid-May, when on the day of her birthday, my father canceled plans to deliver some of her belongings still in his possession.
Finding the way to a cancer-free life became an intimate component of my mother's raison d'etre. Getting to chemotherapy and receiving her treatments allowed her to feel in control over some of the forces at play in her life. Missing a session because of a lowered white blood cell count reminded her of all that she had lost and how little she could do about it.
In some perverse universe, it was acceptable that her final rounds of chemotherapy induced a chemical depression that aggravated her already strained cultural and psychological coping mechanisms. In my universe, such things were the kind of nonsense that only people like Job and Habakkuk understand.
Marisa and Ellen Weiss' book is helpful because it offers support to breast cancer survivors by helping them cope with the emotional, financial and physical hurdles arising in the aftermath of treatment. They juxtapose patients' testimonials and jargon-free analyses of medical topics, such as breast reconstruction, tamoxifen, lymph edema and menopause. Medical follow-up, recurrence of cancer and metastatic disease are discussed, as are other impediments to a return to normal life. The book offers a compassionate approach to dealing with worries that loved ones will develop breast cancer, the lingering side effects of radiation, fertility difficulties, changes in sex drive and feelings of unattractiveness.
"Living Beyond Breast Cancer" is comprehensive; at more than 500 pages, it has the room to cover the spectrum of medical themes without neglecting the related emotional issues. It empowers breast cancer survivors to become their own best advocates, offering an index of other resource guides for survivors to become active participants in their health care team and to enjoy a healthy lifestyle.
Many of the book's suggestions address common questions that are not often discussed in the doctor's office. This is an effective volume because it legitimizes the concerns of survivors without allowing these matters to dictate the course of their lives.
No book can have all the answers, however. Coping with other losses is something breast cancer combatants often face. Women confronting challenges to their body image and redefining their concepts of femininity, sexuality and maternity many times find themselves doing so in altered or altering domestic arrangements.
Survivors simultaneously facing changes in health and family dynamics are not few and far between, but, unfortunately, rather significant in number. The book, as it stands, is thorough, but with a greater emphasis on the above, it would have personally connected with a greater number of women women like Ana Maria Teresa Amparo Irueste Alejandre de Montes.
October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. For more information go to www.nbcam.org or call (877) 886-2226.
Other noteworthy books dealing with similar subject matter:
After Cancer: A Guide to Your New Life," Wendy Schlessel Harpham, M.D.
Be a Survivor: Your Guide to Breast Cancer Treatment," Vladimir Lange
My Mother's Breast: Daughters Face Their Mothers' Cancer," Laurie Tarkan
Breast Cancer," Howell.
Breast Cancer: The Complete Guide," Yashar Hirshaut, M.D.
Breast Cancer: The Fight of Your Life," Robert P. Lenk
The Cancer Conqueror: An Incredible Journey to Wellness," Greg Anderson
Dr. Susan Love's Breast Book," Susan M. Love, M.D., with Karen Lindlsey
Hormones and Breast Cancer," Malcolm C. Pike.
The Red Devil: To Hell With Cancer -- And Back," Katherine Russell Rich
Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place," Terry Tempest Williams
A Safe Place: A Journal for Women with Breast Cancer," Jennifer Pike
I'm Too Young to Get Old: Health Care for Women After Forty," Judith Reichman
Ideologies Of Breast Cancer: Feminist Perspectives," Laura K. Potts, et al
It's Your Body ... Ask ... Questions to Ask Your Physician About Breast Care," William H. Goodson III, M.D.
Just Get Me Through This: The Practical Guide to Breast Cancer," Deborah A. Cohen with Robert M. Gelfand, M.D.
Letters to Harry: A True Story of a Daughter's Love and a Mother's Final Journey," Janet Farrington Graham
Our Bodies, Ourselves for the New Century: A Book by and for Women," (Boston Women's Health Book Collective) Jane Pincus, et al
Recovering From Breast Surgery: Exercises to Strengthen Your Body and Relieve Pain," Diana Stumm
Screaming to Be Heard: Hormonal Connections Women Suspect ... and Doctors Ignore," Elizabeth Lee Vliet, M.D.
Self-Nurture: Learning to Care for Yourself as Effectively as You Care for Everyone Else," Alice D. Domar, Henry Dreher
She Came to Live Out Loud: An Inspiring Family Journey Through Illness, Loss, and Grief," Myra MacPherson, Kenneth J. Doka (Introduction)
Speak the Language of Healing: Living With Breast Cancer Without Going to War," Susan Kuner
Spinning Straw Into Gold: Your Emotional Recovery From Breast Ca Tamoxifen: New Hope in the Fight Against Breast Cancer," John F. Kessler, M.D.
Total Breast Health: The Power Food Solution for Protection and Wellness," Robin Keuneke, Lendon H. Smith
When A Parent Has Cancer: A Guide to Caring for Your Children," Wendy Harpham
A Woman's Decision: Breast Care, Treatment & Reconstruction," (From the Quality Medical Home Health Library) Karen J. Berger, John, III Bostwick
Women's Bodies, Women's Wisdom: Creating Physical and Emotional Health and Healing," Christiane Northrup
Your Life in Your Hands: Understanding, Preventing, and Overcoming Breast Cancer," Jane A. Plant, Ph.D. n
Breast Cancer? Breast Health! The Wise Woman Way" (From the Wise Woman Herbal Series), Susun S. Weed, Christine Northrup, M.D. (Foreword)
Estrogen Anti-estrogen Action and Breast Cancer Therapy," V. Craig Jordan, et al
For Women Only! Your Guide to Health Empowerment," Gary Null, Barbara Seaman
From This Moment On: A Guide for Those Recently Diagnosed with Cancer," Arlene Cotter
Helping Your Mate Face Breast Cancer: Tips for Becoming an Effective Support Partner for the One You Love During the Breast Cancer Experience," Judy C. Kneece
Holding Tight and Letting Go: Living with Metastatic Breast Cancer," Musa Meyer
Hope Lives! The After Breast Cancer Treatment Survival Handbook" (Margit Esser Porter's Sequal to "Hope Is Contagious")
Hope Is Contagious: The Breast Cancer Treatment Survival Handbook," Margit Esser Porter, et al
The Breast Cancer Prevention Diet: The Powerful Foods, Supplements, and Drugs That Combat Breast Cancer/That Can Save Your Life," Bob Arnot, M.D.
The Breast Cancer Survival Manual: A Step-By-Step Guide for the Woman With Newly Diagnosed Breast Cancer," John Link, M.D.
I'm Alive and the Doctor's Dead: Surviving Cancer With Your Sense of Humor and Your Sexuality Intact," Sue Buchanan
Advanced Breast Cancer: A Guide to Living with Metastatic Disease," (A Patient-Centered Guide in the 2nd Edition), Musa Mayer, Linda Lamb