Tit for a Tat
Five Snapshots in the Struggle Against Breast Cancer
There is an answering machine tape hidden in a box somewhere in my closet. I can erase the message but I cannot erase the memory of my mother's voice breaking when she said three words.
"I have cancer."
Oh, no ... not my mother. Not my mother. Six months before, my maternal grandmother had died. My mother wept, sobbing, "my mommy died." I didn't want my mommy to die too. Not now. Not like that. Not ... yet.
At 17, I was trying to be young and free. My boyfriend and I hitchhiked up from L.A. to Seattle, and I hadn't seen my Mom in months. She was expecting us but didn't know when we would arrive because I wanted to surprise her. We rode into Seattle as the sun set over the Cascades, and walked out to the back of my mother's waterfront home on Lake Washington. She was sitting out on the dock enjoying the cool evening when I called out to her. I remember thinking how beautiful she looked and that I had never been happier to see her.
She was still in the hospital, recovering from her double mastectomy when I arrived in Seattle on a rainy, cold night. I took a taxi to her bedside to surprise her. She had the operation the day before and was asleep when I slipped into her room. She looked pale, drawn, and had tubes and gauze packing bandaged about her chest, which looked thinner than I remembered. She looked so vulnerable, so beautiful to me. I woke her gently, hugged her as best I could, and told her I loved her.
One of the best things about my ex-husband Rollo was his ex-girlfriend Kandi. She was a tall, imposingly built redhead who just happened to be one of the best tattoo artists in the Western world. She taught me to make rhubarb pie while visiting here from Honolulu. I took her to see Dr. John play at Antone's.
When Rollo and I moved to Hawaii, Kandi and I became good friends. Rollo was a good sport about it since he was often the butt of our jokes. One afternoon after particularly hellish bout with Honolulu traffic, I walked into our apartment and found Rollo and Kandi in the kitchen embracing. Realizing the soap operatic look of the clinch, Kandi pulled away. "I have cancer," she said.
Her mastectomy happened very quickly and she underwent chemotherapy. When her hair started to fall out, she shaved her head and refused to wear a wig. One day we went to Ala Moana Shopping Center by Waikiki. Kandi was wearing a man's long-sleeved dress with front pockets -- a style she currently favored -- and was walking tall and bald. This was a good look if you were Samoan or a local tough, but it made people stare at her. Kandi didn't care. She held her head high.
I am not sure if she tried to wear a prosthesis or not. A friend from the mainland was visiting, and we all met in Chinatown for dinner. "Sorry to hear about your cancer," his words were sincere but he could not help dropping his eyes and shifting them from breast to breast.
"It's this one," Kandi pointed, then put her hand on her chest pulled something out of the pocket.
It was a pair of underwear. Kandi hadn't wanted to wear prosthesis so she had stuffed a pair of panties whose bulk simulated the shape of her other breast. Now that, I thought with heightened admiration, is my kind of woman.
Liz Carpenter is my kind of woman, too. I interviewed the 80-year-old author, speaker, and political pundit for a Chronicle story in September and since have been fortunate to spend even more time around this amazing woman. Her new book, Start With a Laugh, is ostensibly about how to write and deliver good speeches but it is also full of wit and warmth about a variety of topics including her own bout with breast cancer.
Liz is often called upon to speak to cancer survivors, as she calls herself and them. She doesn't charge for these speeches because "if ever there was a group that needed to be able to laugh, it's this one." One of her favorite lines to use with breast cancer survivors is to confess, "I'm down to one of everything." Liz is also famously Democrat, having been press secretary to Lady Bird Johnson in the White House. Before her mastectomy, Liz demanded to know if the anesthetist was a Democrat. "After all the ugly things I've said about Republicans, I don't want to go under ether with anyone else."
The doctor informed Liz that ether hadn't been used in 20 years, but you get the idea. Liz Carpenter hadn't stuck around that long to let breast cancer get her, and by God, she's ready to pass that indomitable spirit and support to anyone who needs it. This year over 43,000 women will die from it. An estimated 11,500 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in Texas; 2,600 of them will die from it. Breast cancer does not affect just women: 1,400 men will develop it this year in Texas; 400 will die from it. That's nearly 13,000 people in Texas alone who will have to tell someone, "I have cancer." That many people are going to need to laugh.
Laughter may be good medicine, but it's not a cure. On an otherwise unremarkable day in 1978, a young woman named Susan G. Komen of Peoria, Illinois, got the results of a biopsy. She turned to her family and had to speak those terrible words.
"I have cancer."
Komen's family watched her undergo operations and chemotherapy, only to witness as the cancer returned. She underwent radiation that was even more aggressive, and the cancer still metastasized. After nine operations and three rounds of chemo and radiation, Susan G. Komen died of breast cancer in 1980. She was 36.
Komen's sister Nancy Brinker was devastated and horrified at what her sister went through. Susan and Nancy had vowed to do something to help other women with breast cancer. In 1982, two years after her sister's death, Nancy founded the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation. Since that time, the Foundation and its associated organizations have raised over $240 million for breast cancer research, education, screening, and treatment.
The Komen Foundation has also been very powerful in mobilizing corporate sponsorship and attracting publicity. Its Race for the Cure came under fire for relegating men to secondary or separate events in Portland, Oregon, in 1999. (The Foundation's position was to allow the communities sponsoring the races to decide the format.) This year, there are those who feel Nancy Brinker's presence as a speaker at the Republican convention unnecessarily politicized a nonpartisan disease.
But 240 million big, fat smackeroos is nothing to dismiss. The Komen Foundation has awarded over $45 million to more than 400 research and project grants in a process recognized by the National Cancer Institute. 1999's effort raised $350,000 in Austin, alone. Austin's Race for the Cure is one of 107 such races that will take place this year. The races are expected to attract nearly one million participants. Controversy or not, the Komen Foundation has done nothing but improve treatment and education of this terrible disease.
Marcia Ball called me a few weeks ago. "Angela and Lou Ann and I are singing together again, and I wanted to know if you would write something about it. It's a benefit for breast cancer...." Oh yes, I interrupted. I will write something. Because of my mother. Because of Kandi and Liz and Susan and all the other women who will tomorrow or next week or next year or maybe tonight find a lump or have an inkling that something is wrong.
A few days ago, I got e-mail from longtime musician friend Cleve Hattersley:
"Dear Margaret," he wrote, "My sweet Mary is battling Stage Three breast cancer. To help out, a bevy of our old friends are throwing 'Sweet Mary Aid' on December 10 at La Zona Rosa ..."
Not one more time do I want to read or hear about this disease taking down another friend or loved one or anyone else. But I realize that it will only grow worse, and that's why all such efforts must be supported. I wrote Cleve back, offering him and Mary support, love, and encouragement. Those two personified Austin's progressive country of the Seventies when they led Greezy Wheels. Even now, conjuring up the perfect evening of music in 1975 means picturing Greezy Wheels at Soap Creek in a Lone Star haze.
P.S., I noted at the end of the e-mail. A friend of Liz Carpenter's named Elvira Crocker wrote to Liz after her mastectomy. "Dear Liz, All of my life, I have heard people say a tit for a tat. ... End this mystery for me now. What the hell is a tat, and did you get one?"
I hope Cleve and Mary got a laugh out of that.