Top 10 list about breast cancer

8 AM, 2 August, the doctor gave grim news, adding: ‘Don’t worry during the 3 week wait for the oncology appointment.” I went home, curled up like a fiddlehead for 10 minutes, and said to cousin Jane, ‘Let’s go.’ Seven hours of road trip and a lot of laughing later, Decker’s cousin Jane Henderson and I had the beginnings of a list of great things about having breast cancer.

We spent the first few days of vacation hiking in the wild flowers that covered the alpine meadows near our house and expanding the list.

Here’s some of the top 10 list: Having breast cancer is a great …

10. excuse to avoid people who bring you down.

9. reason to see people who enhance your life.

8. time to reassess priorities.

7. conversation stopper when you want to move on.

6. trump card for getting your way.

5. sympathy ploy for getting out of having to do what you don’t want to do.

4. liberation from wearing uncomfortable clothes.

3. jumping off point for taking risks.

2. opportunity to seek whatever truth has eluded you.

1. insight into people’s caring, love, and strength.

The list evolved over time as experiences in the health care system brought new learning  and as my sense of humour ebbed ever lower. Over the journey, I had lots of chances to prove the list was true.

From our hiking trip with Jane and others, Decker and I left on a long-planned canoe trip on the North Saskatchewan River with four buddies. One day, after a five hour paddle, we picked a flat piece of land for the night and made a camp. Lee Ann’s shriek of delight brought us running to the meadow behind the tents – we’d camped on a patch of wild strawberries. Each delicious little red morsel, the size of a baby’s fingernail, was an oral orgasm. Store bought or even domestic back yard garden grown varieties can’t match the exquisite taste of the wild after a long hot day in the paddle. To get more than my share, I reminded my good buddies that strawberries are full of cancer-fighting anti-oxidents and Cancer Girl, my secret identity, really needed all the berries they found. Everyone fell for the sympathy card except Decker, who saw the scam right away and ate his share of berries making very contented sounds.

The river trip ended with just two days to clean up my office before surgery. I worked until the day ended, to get a full night’s sleep before the alarm woke us for the 6:00 AM admission. I couldn’t know then how being fit and healthy from those hiking and canoe vacations would serve me so well in what was to come.

The conflict management lesson was about preparation for the unexpected crisis. Being fit, like being conflict competent, gets us through a lot of swampy stuff. Both fitness and conflict competence take effort, and – when my life depends on it – I’m grateful I made the effort.

And here are two photos. The first is of Decker and me taking my breasts for a hike after the diagnosis and before the first mastectomy, so it’s mid August 2010. The second is exactly two years later, and deliberately wearing the same shirt, with Trail. I look two decades older and – in my mind – centuries happier.

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