Hi, all. Andi here on this Valentine’s Day. As some of you know already from posts on Facebook, I and fellow author Anne Laughlin each received some crappy news late last year. I contacted her after I saw her posting on Facebook to offer support, and she suggested that we have a “conversation,” of sorts, in which we talk about our separate diagnoses of breast cancer and how that has or has not affected our writing and us.
We thought it might be useful for readers, and also for each of us, as we have both struggled to wrap our brains around what’s happened. We hope you do find it useful, whether for purely informative purposes, or perhaps in terms of the creative process in the face of such a diagnosis, or for whatever reasons.
This is not an easy subject and we both understand that. We thank you, thus, for reading.
Click on for more…
ANNE: Andi, you and I have met maybe once or twice, but we’ve known of each other as fellow authors of lesbian fiction for a number of years now. Up until a month ago, that was all I knew of that we had in common. Lo and behold, it now turns out we share something pretty huge – a recent diagnosis of breast cancer. When did you first get word that you have cancer and what did they tell you the diagnosis is?
ANDI: Hey, Anne. Yes, we have met a couple times, and I think we do run in similar circles with regard to writing, at least, and I’m pretty sure people who have read my work have also read your work, too. So that’s something else we have in common (heh!). But yes, we do share a breast cancer diagnosis, and that kind of situation completely sucks ass.
I want to point out that I have no real family history of breast cancer. Statistics currently suggest that 85 percent of breast cancers occur in women with no family history.
I was diagnosed in mid-November, 2011, with Ductal Carcinoma In Situ (DCIS). This was after two mammograms — the initial mammogram was actually my first ever — and a core needle biopsy. The “In Situ” (pronounced SY-too) means that it’s “in its original place” and hasn’t spread. “Ductal” means that the cancer started in or is affecting the milk ducts of a breast. DCIS is one of the most common forms of non-invasive breast cancers. Mine was caught early, at stage 0. However, because it was “diffuse throughout my breast” — in several milk ducts/areas — mastectomy rather than lumpectomy was recommended.
This course of action, I was told, would probably mean that I would not have to have chemotherapy or radiation, because the cancer probably has not spread out of my breast. I would, however, lose my breast. The radiologist who did the initial diagnosis told me that the situation I had was a paradox, because the treatment seemed extreme for the type of cancer it currently is and its current stage. But in my mind, it’s freaking cancer, and if that’s what has to be done to keep it from spreading, then yes, I’m on board with it.
My cancer is also estrogen receptive, which means it responds to estrogen, and that opens up some other treatment options, in addition to surgery. In my case, I’ll most likely be going on tamoxifen or some similar hormone suppressant (there are a few others on the market now) to lower my estrogen levels because I haven’t gone through menopause yet, and estrogen feeds the type of cancer I was diagnosed with. This will help protect my healthy breast, is the current medical thinking. I will thus be meeting with a radiation oncologist who works with hormone suppressants and women with breast cancer.
How about you, Anne? When did you get your diagnosis and what was it?
ANNE: The day before I was told by two doctors that I almost certainly had breast cancer, I was sitting for an entire afternoon in a car dealership thinking it was the worst afternoon I’d had in memory. Fast forward twenty four hours and car shopping looked like a day in Valhalla. As you probably experienced yourself, things happen lickety-split in the world of cancer diagnoses. In what seems like the blink of an eye, I went from worrying about whether to upgrade the stereo system in the new car to wondering whether I’d live longer than the seven year warranty.
My diagnosis is a Stage II, invasive ductal carcinoma. Pathology also shows that I’m what they call “Triple Negative,” a rarer form of the disease that has a less promising prognosis. Chemo is the only effective treatment for TNs. There’s no tamoxifen or other targeted therapies. So my course of treatment is to undergo immediate chemotherapy, which will last four months, followed by surgery, and then radiation. In other words, this is my Cancer Year.
My first round of chemo was not as easy as I hoped it would be, but not nearly as bad as it could have been. I can handle that.
Andi, how do you feel your diagnosis has impacted your life as a writer? For the moment, my writing has come to a screeching halt. But when I do get back to writing, I’m sure there will be ways in which this will influence it in some way.
ANDI: I hate that you got that diagnosis. I freaking hate it, and I want you to kick this freaking disease right in the ass. You’ve got a ton of people rooting for you, me included.
When I got my diagnosis, I had this moment of “WHAT THE F***” and you don’t know where to put this information, so it bounces all over your head and all kinds of scenarios unspool and then you want to know how bad it is, not only out of morbid curiosity, but because all of a damn second, your life has irrevocably shifted and you are now in instantaneous survival mode. Everything else, just like that, goes on complete hold. Just like that.
Now to your question. My writing was on hold from about the first of November through about the beginning of December, because I was trying to find a surgeon, I was working with the radiologist to help me with that, and there was more testing involved to double-check the initial diagnosis. And every test I get with this is an ultra-stressor, because you aren’t sure what the results will say. So I was not in the right head-space to write, and that’s okay. I’m not the kind of writer who beats herself up if she’s not in the right space.
Once I got into December, and I had a plan of action with regard to the cancer — that is, appointments scheduled and a bit more research under my belt and more questions addressed — I fell into a wary relationship with what I called “the monster in my tit.” That is, I knew it was there, I knew what it was up to, and we had kind of a standoff. The type of cancer I have can be slow and it is currently non-invasive, so honestly, it could have been there for a long time before it was finally caught. When I thought about that, about having this time bomb in my breast for possibly a few years, I sort of came to this place where I could actually not engage with thoughts of what exactly the cancer was doing in my boob when I wasn’t paying full attention to it. After all, it had been there a while, and it wasn’t going to do anything crazy in the next month or two, according to the medical people.
So in that space where I didn’t engage with the monster, I wrote. I worked on my sci fi series, which gives me lots of pleasure; I re-wrote my romance novella “Some Kind of River” and cleaned it up/formatted it and got it published on Kindle; I mulled some ideas for the current mystery I’m working on. And it helped. It pulled my mind out of the bad neighborhood and allowed me to do something that brings me a lot of joy and comfort. I found a lot of comfort in my writing prior to the diagnosis and after, I still do.
Now, I don’t want anyone to think that I ever once forgot I had cancer or that I stopped worrying about it. That’s not at all the case. Once you have it, you will have what I call a “cancer shadow” the rest of your life. I need to come to terms with that, and I expect over the next few months and years I will, at least as much as anyone can. In my case, I think that given the type of cancer it is and my prognosis, I’ve been allowed the great fortune of being able to claim a little room to find some zen in each day. I put in a couple hours of writing a day once I was into December, and that continued through January.
Currently, I am recovering from the mastectomy, so I’m not writing much. I’ll probably do some soon, though. I’m more a night writer, and doing that brings me some peace before I go to sleep. If I’m working on a project before bed, I find I’m able to fall asleep visualizing the story, and sometimes problem stuff in the narrative gets worked out in my sleep.
In this case, my writing offered a respite from the diagnosis, the fear, the stress. I’m absolutely sure the diagnosis has impacted my writing, though I’m not sure how that will manifest yet. I’m also trying to figure out how to come to terms with my new physiological landscape. I’m sure that I’ll write something in the future that features a storyline that draws from my experience, and probably characters that do, as well.
So, yes. This undoubtedly will affect my future writing. I’m sure it’s affecting it now, though I’m perhaps not seeing those layers yet. Perhaps alert readers will look back on the things I publish during 2011-2012 and think: “wow, Andi’s writing was really dark for a while.” I don’t know. Maybe what I’m writing now IS dark and I’m just not catching it yet.
I find, too, that I’m reading voraciously, especially in spec fic/fantasy again. That’s my fall-back escapist literature, so I think on some levels, I am trying to run away a little, if only for a bit.
I also find myself thinking about you, and your days, as you deal with this new reality. If I don’t see a post from you on Facebook, I worry that the chemo has gotten you down, or that something else has, and then I remember that you are a person who has other things going on besides cancer, and that though this is the overarching definition of your days for now, it is not the overarching definition of you.
To that end, if you were in the right head space, what would you be writing? Is there a project that’s taking shape in your mind as you go through this? New characters? And I think it’s important, too, to talk a bit about how your treatment affects you physically, and how that affects whether you write and what you want to write.
ANNE: I’ll tell you what I’m not going to write, and that’s a cancer book. Someone please just finish me off if I try to publish a book about a woman with cancer. I wouldn’t even read it. But there’s no doubt that having to face ones mortality in a less than abstract way shakes you to the core, and there’s no way that’s not going to inform my writing in one manner or another.
The novel I was working on before the diagnosis is called “Olive Street House.” Probably in complete contradiction to what I just said about never writing a cancer novel, OSH is about recovering women, and as one myself I guess I chose in this instance to write about the other defining disease in my life. But I’ve been sober for 22 years, and that’s a lot of time to get some perspective and wisdom. Also, I’m very determined to have this novel be about the characters, not about the disease. I don’t think I could do that if I were to write about cancer anytime soon.
I’m not sure when I’ll get back to the book, but like you, I’m not going to worry about not being in the right place to write. The chemotherapy will probably make that tough. But there’s no doubt in my mind that I’ll get back to it or to some other writing project. Writing’s in my blood now. I have a book coming out next month, so I’m feeling charged up about the whole process – the solitary writing, the collaborative process with my editor and publisher, the arrival of my copies of the book on my doorstep, and then standing up before a crowd at my home bookstore and reading from the new novel. It’s a thrill. But it’s a ton of work, too, and you have to be up for it mentally and physically.
It’s interesting that you mentioned Facebook. I’m really trying to be discreet in the amount of posting I do, because I don’t want to seem like I’m grandstanding my illness. But the response I’ve received in the comments to my posts has been amazing. I feel the support and the love – a lot of it coming from people I don’t personally know. It’s been helpful and actually very moving.
And a note on how I first came to discover I have cancer. Last October I had an exam by my doctor and a mammogram, both of which came back clear. In late December, my partner Linda found a sizable lump in my breast, one that had been non-existent a mere two months before. So, my advice to everyone is first to not ever succumb to lesbian bed death. Sex can save your life. Secondly, have regular exams, mammograms, and, very importantly, do your self-exams. I was terrible about doing those and may not have found it on my own.
So, we’re both in for a fight — first the physical one, and then the much longer mental one. I’m game, and I’m sure you are too. Today I bought some groovy hats to wear. I’m all set.
ANDI: It’s interesting, how art can parallel certain elements of our personal lives even though we weren’t consciously looking for parallels at the time of writing. At least I wasn’t. And I’m with you – I don’t want to write a “cancer book.” Elements of my experience will probably find their way into various projects, but it’s not something I’m actively wanting to write. I suppose I’ll see how this experience plays out in my writing over time.
And readers, did you catch that? Whether you identify as lesbian, bi, or straight in terms of your sexual expression, intimacy with your partners is important not just in terms of strengthening and enjoying a bond, but also in terms of health. Please get appropriate screenings, and keep an eye on yourselves and on your partners, because that can help pick up on things early that might be health issues. And I second Anne. Learn your bodies, and keep an eye (and fingers) on them.
Thanks, Anne, for taking the time. We’re all pulling for you out here. Drop by any time. And thank you, readers and fellow writers, for joining us in this important topic.
Breast cancer statistics. Sobering.
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