A conversation between two authors: Anne Laughlin and Andi Marquette

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.

For more information:

Info about DCIS: Breastcancer.org
(resources link here, at that site)

For more information about invasive ductal carcinoma.

About triple negative breast cancer.

National Breast Cancer Foundation

Breast Cancer Society

Breast Cancer Support

42 comments

  1. This is an amazing story. Very enlightening. Thanks for sharing this. You may save someone’s life with the details in this post. I wish you both a better future than what has been handed to you. Keep up the courage!

    Kathi

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  2. This is a profoundly relevant conversation for all women. Thank you both for sharing your stories. I am in awe of your strength and courage and I hope everyone has a chance to share this message. My thoughts and prayers are with you both–every single day.

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  3. WOW! Andy, I had no idea and Anne, even though we have never met in person, I have felt a connection to you since we started communicating, I guess because we have a common history. You guys are amazing and wonderful women. You both kick ass in other areas of your life and I have no doubt that you will do the same with this disease. I am reminded of Knute Rockne’s words to his Notre Dame team-“we’re going to fight, fight, fight and we’re going to win, win, win!”
    Hang tough, ladies, and thanks for sharing,
    Cameron

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  4. Thank you both for sharing your experiences. I firmly believe that a positive attitude and belief in ourselves and our loved ones can carry us through many difficult situations. I’ll continue to keep both of you in my thoughts as you fight and persevere.

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  5. An absolutely amazing discussion, ladies. Your frankness and openness may have saved a life today. Thank you for all you’ve shared. And it is great to see how much writing means to you both. We, as readers, have always benefited from your passion for what you do, and now we are benefiting in an entirely new way from your writing about your experiences.
    May I share this blog with others outside this WordPress site? I think what you two have created here with this dialogue is exceptional.
    I do like hearing about your progress, Anne, so don’t shy away from sharing. We’d all like to ‘root you on’ as you proceed on this journey.
    Take care, you two, and again, Thank You for your gift to all of us today.

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  6. Solargrrl – please share this wherever you’d like. We’d love for more women to read about breast cancer and how it can creep into one’s life. Did you know that 1 in 8 women get the disease? It’s really not a matter of me asking why me, but rather why not me?

    And thanks to everyone for their comments.

    Anne

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  7. I send a huge thank you to both of you for having and sharing this poignant conversation. I love the characters and plots in both of your books, and I appreciate your sharing about your creative processes. As you take the time you need to face the challenges of this disease, please know you are not alone. With light and love. sally

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  8. I’ve been so busy with a lot of personal matters of late that I totally missed the boat that the two of you are battling breast cancer. That just sucks. I’m rooting for you both – and for the hope that the cancer will NOT slow you or your writing down! At least, not too terribly much once you get your treatments complete. I will keep you in my thoughts and prayers, and I hope you can (as Andi said) kick cancer’s ass!
    Big Hugs,
    Lori

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  9. Thanks, Andi and Anne, for your willingness to be so vulnerable and honest in this conversation. It was a powerful piece. And you both remain in my thoughts and prayers. Good energy both your ways!

    Anita

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  10. Andi, I had no idea about your cancer diagnosis. Both of you are amazingly strong, positive, kick-ass women, and as I’ve told Anne, I’m in my internship for certification in yoga for cancer survivors. So important and empowering to rebuild range of motion after mastectomy, or to learn techniques to relax before, during, or after treatments. If I can be of ANY help, holler. Love to you both.

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  11. Thank you both for sharing, my prayers are with you. I also would like to share your story if that would be ok.

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  12. Thank you both for your courage and frankness in voicing this. I admire your strength and I’m sending many positive thoughts your way.

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  13. Andi & Anne, what you’ve done in writing about this with openness and courage is so important both for others and for your own healing. I’m sending you both lots of love, light, and healing energy. Remember at the hardest moments that you are never alone. XO, Lynn Ames

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  14. You Women rock my world. Anne, you and Andi created a fine piece of writing, but I must contradict the the proposition that your writning came to a “screeching halt” – cuz here it is. I know it’s not fiction, but it’s damn good. Thanks to you both. Big love. Sally Bellerose

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  15. Thank you, ladies. A sober (no pun intended, Anne!) and articulate post about the process you two are going through. A dark subject, yes, but your honest reflections help those whi not only have cancer but those of us who love someone with cancer. (hence my shaved head – it cat take away the pain, worry, or fear but it does give us a few chucks when we walk down the beach and people think we are Buddhist monks! Chins up, ladies. We are all carrying you close to our hearts.

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  16. Andi, like you I received a DCIS diagnosis in 2009. However, my left breast showed pre-cancer also. I underwent a bi-lateral mastectomy without hesitation. My mother succumbed to breast cancer at the age of 47. I had passed her timeline be several years and wasn’t taking any chances. The only emotional loss of my breasts I ever felt was how it might affect my chances at a relationship. It has just been 3 years for me, but I am still cancer free. I know what both you ladies are going through as far as how the decisions and impact of the diagnosis affects your life. All I can say is there are days you wil be down, but don’t let the cancer keep you there. Stay on top of it and keep enjoying life even though it’s not easy! My thoughts and prayers are with you both and keep us up to date.

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    • Hi, Lori–many thanks for commenting here about your own diagnosis and mastectomy. I’m very sorry to hear about your mom, and I’m hoping that you keep on truckin’ after you took the steps you did. I am SO glad to hear you’re still cancer-free! Yeah, there are weird days, but I do feel fortunate that it was caught when it was. Thank you again and please do come by any time!

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  17. I hate to hear this. You’re both in my thoughts and prayers. And like you said, Andi, KICK THAT CANCER IN ITS A$$! Phyllis and my dad have recently been diagnosed with cancer–my dad with Stage IV lung cancer, Phyllis with endometrial cancer. It’s been a very surreal time. Like it’s not happening. But we’re all trying to stay positive. You two both take care.

    Chris

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  18. First of all. I hope you’re both well. Synchronicity is a strange thing. I just read this post for the first time. Searching for blogs by Andi here because I wanted to read more about Torri and Kai. Just read the first book, got hooked and bought the sequels.. . Anyway. As it is I was diagnosed with breast cancer in januari 2012. I won’t bore you with details. And as cancer has a tendency to show, there were a-typical results. I had breast saving surgery (I’m dutch and it still is quite the euphemism) and radiation therapy with full blast at the earea where the tumor had been situated. Considering my age -49 at the time- and the a-typical thing being that I had a 2mm macro metastase in my lymphnode I was advised to take chemo and tamoxifen as adjuvant. After absorbing the statistics and a full bodyscan that revealed no spreading I decided no chemo. The tamoxifen drove me crazy so I decided to stop that too. Oh well. I’m writing this on my smart phone. It’s getting too long. I’m dutch so pardon my French. Just want to say: thank you for sharing, thank you for caring and thank you for writing. I’ve been reading a lot the last few years and have found much comfort and yes escape in that. A personal thank you again to Andi for mailing me “From the boots up” when I showed an interest. I’m up for inspection again next month. The shadow is there and I’m skating again 🙂 Warm hugs dear women! Linda

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    • Hey, Linda. Chris Paynter here. I’ll repeat what Andi has said… keep kicking the cancer in its a$$! I’ve recently written a book about cancer, hope, and survival. And it has a dolphin! 🙂 I’d be happy to send you a copy if you’d want to email me: ckpaynter@ckpaynter.com. If not, I understand. I only wish the best for you.

      Chris

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  19. Thanks for stopping by, Linda and Chris. I have my checkup coming up in January/February (I found that blocking the date out helps my state of mind; the doc calls with a reminder, so that’s when I start freaking out about it). November is the month of my diagnosis anniversary, so I made it through that okay. This time of year is now part of my “cancer shadow,” which is why I try to stay involved with giving and fun because otherwise, I’d dwell and because of the chronic depression I also deal with, that’s never a good thing, to get all trapped in your own head.

    All that said, so glad you got treatment and you’re with us now. I, too, opted not to take tamoxifen. Anecdotally, something like a third of women in their 40s, at least, stop taking it because it messes with them. Given the type of cancer I had and the prognosis as well as the depression I deal with, I decided not to take tamoxifen.

    Caveat — treatment for any illness or injury is contingent on the individual dealing with it and what her doctors recommend and what she ultimately decides. Tamoxifen has helped many, many women and I do not at all want to imply that you shouldn’t take a medicine based on a decision that I made for myself. If you are going through a cancer treatment/diagnosis, work closely with your medical team and make the decision you feel is best for you.

    Take care of yourselves and each other! You’re the only you we’ve got. 🙂

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  20. Hi Cris and Andi,

    thank you so much for responding to my post. It’s a bit weird that after almost two years I find a way to communicate and it’s not the Mamma-poli. Here in NL there is after-care available if you want it. MAMMACARE- that’s the name they came up with.. Oh well. Uptill now I haven’t found a need to make use of the possiblity and in the first follow-up conversation the nurse said she never had such a short conversation. This is just me. They are doing a very important job!

    Today 19 – or is it 20 already – years ago my father died. I love him and he is with me every day. Thinking about years etc. I just realized it was only 1 year and 11 months ago that the first diagnosis was made. So a typo in the last post. My breast was altered on Valentine’s day 2013 (I kid you not).

    I myself am very gay (pun intended) because sometimes life just smiles at you. And where do I look. Once again I look at me.

    I have a photo of dolphins in my office and it’s more than that. In fact I once had the arrogance to swim with them in the Red Sea. Uhmm.. not in a basin and the boats were heading in other directions. Different story. Thank you.

    And dear women and words here. We are all different.
    There is no best advise, no way to know what’s best. Tamoxifen yes or no?
    Listen to yourselves, listen to your doctor, you’re the only one with the answer. And ‘knowing’ all statistics it’s still random. And we might still die (and we will eventually). So let’s op for life 🙂

    My radio therapist said to me: “You probably won’t blaim yourself if you will be diagonized with cancer again in about 10 years. You probably won’t think: if I did or would have done this or that”.

    I don’t know, maybe. Maybe I will, Maybe I will not. I have no idea.
    Sharing and caring, yes.

    Hugs
    Linda

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  21. P.S.

    Oh well. That’s – opt – for life and – diagnosed -. Occupational deformation (translator/interpreter dutch-german and vice versa). Can’t let it slide.

    Caveat – yes. Tamoxifen has aided many women. I don’t pretent to know what’s good for you individually (see above).

    Hugs still aply 🙂

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