Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Breast cancer's surprise gift

Editor's note: Ann Silberman's "But Doctor I Hate Pink" was the first breast cancer blog I ever read. I had no idea there were people out there writing about breast cancer in such an entertaining manner. I asked Ann if her experience held any life lessons, and this is what she shared.


I grew up in the ‘70s era of “finding yourself.” Back then, people would travel long distances, to ashrams in India, or to the top of Machu Picchu in search of their personalities. Others would turn inward, taking psychoactive mushrooms, LSD, or learn transcendental meditation in the hopes gaining insight into their own souls.

This always mystified me. In my world view, all you needed to do was look in the mirror or take a second to think about something -- and there you are. Why would one need to find something that’s not lost? What was it they were seeking?

When invasive cancer reared its ugly head and implanted itself in my beautiful breast, unlike the conventional wisdom that said this would be a life-changing journey that would teach me about myself, I knew better. I wouldn’t need to find inner strength because I knew it was already there. I would deal with cancer in a practical and positive way, and I knew that research and information was the way to get through it. I would not imagine death when the odds were with me. I knew exactly what I was facing and how I’d react. I got down to the business of healing, secure in the belief that this would be over in time.

Yet, was it possible life had something to teach me after all?

My first hint came when a package showed up on my doorstep. It was a pair of fabulously sexy shoes in a brand that I love. They fit me perfectly, sent by friends I’d only been sporadically in touch with over the years. How did they know my size, what I would love, and the exact thing that would make me feel better? 

That wasn’t all. After my mastectomy, meals were dropped off, made by a coworker. My stepdaughter offered to cook Thanksgiving Dinner, which for years had my pleasure to provide alone. An old friend made me a silky bathrobe, so I could feel pretty even after surgery. Before my first chemo, a package arrived in the mail; inside was a silly Snugli, a note that had me laughing out loud, chapstick and a book. An old childhood toy made a reappearance. As my hair fell out, a favorite brand of headwear magically appeared in the mail. My stylist buzzed my hair and trimmed my wigs - at no charge. Messages of support were abundant.

And abundantly unexpected.

Apparently, this cancer experience did have a lesson to teach me - about the kindness of people. About how they will support you and uplift you when you don’t even think you need it. The amazing truth is my inner strength had no impact on anybody’s else’s desire to give. And, while I’ve not changed: my lack of breast hasn’t caused a feminine identity crisis and going through chemotherapy is just a project to finish -  I have dropped some of the cynicism I have felt towards my fellow man.

I have learned the best lesson that cancer can provide - and what those in the ‘70s were missing - that the way to find what you seek is not by turning inward and examining your own soul, but by looking outward and seeing the souls of others.  

Ann Silberman is a "breast cancer asskicker" in Sacramento, CA.  By day she's a Middle School Secretary and by night she's the blogger of "butdoctorIhatepink."  She is lucky enough to have a wonderful husband and two great sons, who have refrained from making fun of her bald head.  Most of the time, anyway.

How cool is that! 


  1. It is the kindness of others that helps make the journey easier. I was so grateful for the help I received from family, neighbors and friends.
    I was surprised when certain people stepped forward, and a bit saddened by those who withdrew, not knowing how to handle the situation.
    I also handled the illness in the most practical way that I could; I knew the steps I had to take to save my life, and I wanted to do whatever it took to live for my husband and children. I sort of had "tunnel vision" and didn't let the side effects get to me. I didn't complain; after all, how could I complain when this was the path I needed to take in order to survive?
    Thanks, Ann, for sharing your story.
    I'm so glad that the Loop found me on Twitter, and I am happy to be following back!

  2. Thanks Kathleen and welcome!
    I too was surprised at the graciousness of people. About a year before my diagnosis I was planning my wedding, and sometimes had to beg for help.
    I don't know whether having cancer brought our the best in people, or allowed me to see the good that was already there.