Maryln Schwartz is a columnist for The Dallas Morning News. Her work appears in the paper’s “Today” section. This column ran October 1, 1997.
Murphy Brown’s first show of the season had a familiar scenario for women—nervously waiting around to find out if their mammograms turned out okay.
For thousands of women each year, this is not just TV.
Murphy Brown got breast cancer. So did I.
This is not a “poor me” story. I have just finished a year of surgery, chemotherapy and radiation, and the treatments went extremely well. My prognosis is very good.
But this column is not just about me. It also is about the tough, strong women who went through this before me. They not only gave me strength—they made me laugh.
This is also for all the women who are facing the same thing and are terrified. Don’t believe all the stories. This is not a descent into hell.
I was given the first three episodes of the Murphy Brown show and watched with a few tears and lots of laughter. It was as if someone was standing behind me reporting on what I had been doing and saying.
Late for mammogram
I was late for my mammogram. So was Murphy. Both of us assumed we had a press pass to life. How could anything be wrong with us? We wrote about crises, we didn’t involve ourselves in them.
One of the characters on the show announced she didn’t need a mammogram. Breast cancer didn’t run in her family. Well, it didn’t run in my family either.
I was not years late for the mammogram, just months. But those eight months almost cost me my life. I put off getting that mammogram because I was just too busy.
One day I had some time and thought about getting the mammogram. Instead, I chose to clean out my closet. Only the thought of a mammogram could make me clean out my closet.
I know one woman who canceled her mammogram because she heard the lines were short on weekdays to see Evita. She could always get a mammogram, but Evita was a tough ticket.
I always wondered how I’d feel if I waited too long and found out the mammogram wasn’t okay. Well, I’ll tell you how I felt.I felt like a fool. It was so stupid, so unnecessary.
If hearing this makes you uncomfortable, good. It should. Get that mammogram. Nothing is worse than realizing you might have lessened your odds.
“Never look back,” my doctor said. He was wonderful through all this—tough, realistic and sensitive to my feelings. I took his advice and just concentrated on what lay ahead.
My cancer was advanced. I was scared to ask exactly what my odds were. Instead, I asked the doctor this: “I am redoing my house and I’m putting in ‘long-wearing’ carpet. It’s very expensive. Is there any reason I shouldn’t choose the ‘long-wearing’?”
There was a heart-stopping pause. The doctor smiled and said, “Maryln, go for the plush.”
Murphy Brown says to her doctor in an upcoming episode, “If I buy green bananas, I just want to know if I am going to be around to see them ripen.”
I did not begin with surgery. My doctors and I chose chemotherapy first, hoping to shrink the tumor before the mastectomy.
Chemotherapy! The very word was terror. I had heard all the stories. I thought even if I lived, the quality of life would be horrible.
People gathered around and looked miserable for me.
“Oh, my God,” I remember thinking. “They’re already dividing my jewelry.” One person even asked, not too subtly, how one applies for a column at the newspaper.
“The position is not open,” I informed her.
“It was just a hypothetical question,” she said rather huffily.
I decided right then and there, I would not give that woman the satisfaction of dying.
Sound petty? Maybe so, but you cannot imagine the things that keep you going in those circumstances.
Then there were the people who felt it necessary to inform me: “My mother had breast cancer. She did wonderful for a while, they thought it was gone. But it came back.”
Thank you so very much.
The chemotherapy turned out to be a big surprise. I had no horror stories. Things have changed. There are new medicines. I never once got nauseated. There was no terrible vomiting. I got very, very tired but never had to stop any of my activities. I could work from home and never had to stop writing my columns.
The day of my first treatment, a friend came with me. We were ushered into a large, pleasant room with lots of lounge chairs. My treatments were by IV. I had the option of watching TV or videocassettes.There were plenty of magazines and I could order in lunch. My friend and I visited and afterward went to lunch and shopped. Then I went home and wrote a column.
I was amazed and told this to my friends.
“You make it sound like you’re going to The Greenhouse,” a friend informed me.
Well, no, it was no luxury spa. But I was so grateful that I didn’t dread going, that I couldn’t stop trying to reassure people.
In the middle of the treatments, the newspaper sent me to Washington to cover Bill Clinton’s second inauguration. After a few days, I sent home a postcard: “The temperature is 10 below zero with the wind chill factor, there are no cabs, the balls are so crowded it takes you an hour to walk two feet, and there is nothing to eat. All in all, chemotherapy is easier.”
I am not trying to make light of chemotherapy. It is a serious procedure that affects people in different ways. I was lucky. I tolerated it extremely well. But, even people who had problems with chemotherapy did not report horror stories. Mostly, they said they were very, very tired for a few days after the treatments. Others said it was like having the flu.
And there is a bright side. Yes, you lose your hair, but wigs today are incredible. For one year, I never had a bad hair day and I never had to shave my legs.
I also got frequent-flier miles by paying what I could with my credit card. Well, why not?
The mastectomy came after three months. I hid my nervousness in strange ways. The night before surgery, a friend came over with dinner. I was madly cleaning my house.
“What are you doing?” he demanded.
“Straightening up,” I said.
“You are having major surgery in the morning,” he said. “Why do that now?”
“Well, people will be coming over when I get back from the hospital. My mother would die if she thought the place was a mess.”
“Maryln, your mother is dead. Stop this right now.”
The surgery also went well. The chemotherapy had worked amazingly. My tumor had shrunk and increased my chances. I was in the hospital two days.
The hospital was full when I had my surgery. I shared the room with a lovely woman who was a grandmother. She had just had painful colon cancer surgery. She was given a morphine pump to relieve the pain. But she rarely used it.
“I don’t want to risk the chance of getting addicted. I can stand the pain for a little while.”
At the same time, we were watching TV and another football player had been suspended for using drugs. His excuse was he just needed it to help him get through the pain.
I smiled at that tough, strong grandmother and will always remember her. If she could do it, I’ll bet a big, strong football player could too.
After the surgery, I continued my chemotherapy and also had radiation.
The other patients and I visited with one another and compared notes. A few times, I did my column interviews right in the chemotherapy room. On another day, some of the women talked about reconstructive surgery. One woman was 25. Another was 75. Everyone was going for reconstruction.
“I’m single again,” the 75-year-old said. “I want to look good. And don’t forget, girl—this time you get to pick exactly what you want.”
If anything, this whole experience has taught me the wisdom of that old adage, “Life is what happens while you are planning something else.” You never know what’s in store for you. I certainly never planned on breast cancer.
When I first moved to Dallas, I became friends with a woman who had just moved to town, too. We would sit around and plan our futures. We plotted our careers, our boyfriends, our marriages in intricate detail. We never imagined sickness, never dreamed of breast cancer.
That friend is Nancy Brinker. She later started Susan G. Komen for the Cure® in memory of her sister who died from it. Nancy got cancer, too. When we sit around planning today, we are a lot more realistic.
But none of this has to be a horror story. Komen for the Cure® is the first to tell you how treatable breast cancer is. New breakthroughs are coming every day.
How do I know? That’s easy. I know because I am still here. And you will be too—if you’ll just get your mammogram.