Hopefully Ever After
Linda Barrett could be any one of us. She’s an ordinary woman living a wonderfully ordinary life – husband, kids, teaching, writing – totally unprepared for Murphy’s Law on steroids. In February 2001, she discovers her first breast cancer at exactly the same time she starts a brand new teaching position and celebrates the release of her very first published novel. Celebrates? Secrets must be kept to protect her fledging career as a writer. No secrets in the classroom however. Her adult GED students out her in five minutes when they spot her wig!
Nine years later, when Linda is hit with breast cancer a second time, she knows there’s a mystery to be solved. She copes with more radical treatments—six rounds of chemo, major surgeries, implants—and with a thousand mile move.
At the heart of this memoir, however, is a love story. Cancer is the vehicle that exposes a marriage in full bloom. As Linda says, “Everyone deserves a Hopefully Ever After, and that’s what you’ll find here.”
*As it turned out, the last page of the memoir really wasn’t the end of my story. Click here to read What Came Next….
"The cancer experience can be a panic-fueled bullet train, but you meet some cool people in the bar car. In engaging girlfriend style, Linda Barrett’s frank, funny memoir delivers an honest account of her difficult journey with just the right mix of love, friendship, wig-whipping and accessibly rendered science. Highly recommended for the newly diagnosed."
Reviewed by Joni Rodgers, NYT bestselling author of BALD IN THE LAND OF BIG HAIR
And They Lived Hopefully Ever After…
A cancer diagnosis slams into you with the subtlety of a freight train. You can’t talk or breathe. You stare at familiar surroundings, but everything looks distorted. This isn’t real, you think. It’s just an out-of-body experience, and it is not happening to you.
Except it is. Breast cancer happened to me twice, but you don’t get any points for experience here. That freight train hit with the same ferocity the second time as it did the first.
After a decade of turbulence, however, I’ve now landed in a soft place. Outside the screened lanai where I’m sitting, a pair of sand hill cranes walks across the back yard, their bright red head-feathers in brilliant contrast with the soft gray of their bodies. They are tall and majestic birds, deliberate in their steps, their posture exuding the confidence I’m lacking.
“So much has happened since the first diagnosis,” I say to my husband, who’s nose-deep in a crossword puzzle. “I need to come up with the perfect starting point for this story.”
Mike lowered the newspaper and looked at me over his reading glasses. “You do know you’re always cranky when you begin a new book? But in the end, you always figure out what to do.”
I must have looked doubtful because he glanced longingly at his paper before lifting his eyes to mine. “All right, all right. Here’s an idea: try starting with our current lives. We’re doing well. You’re healthy again. We’re finally living without holding our breaths. Begin in the here and now.” With pen back in hand, he became engrossed once more in Across and Down.
Had I asked him to solve my problem?
No. I was just kvetching out loud. But Mike was being Mike, trying to find a solution. In our early days, long before cancer crept into our lives, I’d tease him about being my Knight in Shining Tinfoil. I’d expected him to share household chores and didn’t want his head to swell because he shopped for groceries, cleaned the sink or vacuumed the carpets. Tinfoil seemed an appropriate garment.
More recently, when the going got rough, he was at my side—sure, steady and strong. A full-time job. I should replace his tinfoil with armor now, but I’m holding off. He knows it and laughs; we laugh together. Gentle teasing is our way. After more than four decades as husband and wife, we understand each other very well. I know why he suggested I focus this story in the present. He prefers to live in the moment, enjoying the sunshine and the sand hill cranes. He prefers to leave the dark days behind us. I can’t blame him.
Although I’m half of the Linda-and-Michael team, I am also a mother, grandmother and novelist with fourteen works of fiction in print. My stories are about ordinary people in crisis, struggling to reach their happy endings. In 2001, when breast cancer hit me for the first time, I had to fight for my own happy ending, which I achieved and enjoyed for nine years.
Sitting on the screened porch today, I feel great, look pretty good and am planning for a long future. Part of me doesn’t want to look back; I’m not that different from Mike. I should simply pack the cancer experience away in a mental trunk and, as we native New Yorkers say, fuhggedaboudit! The other part of me, however, wants to write about the turmoil and examine it for my own sake as well as for my children and grandchildren’s sakes, and for those families facing the same situation. There was a specific reason for my cancers and something to be learned from them. Neither tumor was a random hit, but I didn’t know that at the time.
On a sticky note taped to my computer is a quote I borrowed from Churchill: Never, never, never give up. Staring at those words got me through many a day.
Lab reports and medical records lay on the wrought iron table in front of me. Fact-checking is a must for any book. I need no notes, however, to recall my feelings as a two-time rider on the Breast Cancer Express. I need no cues to recall the complications the illness brought to my busy life and the heartache it brought to my family. And I need no reminders as to what I’d learned: in the fight to live, no decision is too extreme. They may be dramatic and scary, but if they work, so what? Twelve years have passed since my first bout with the disease, almost three years since my second one. Fortunately, that tumor wasn’t a recurrence, but a brand new visitor. A good thing. Isn’t it weird that a malignant tumor can bring good news? My last appointment with my surgeon at Tampa General is long over, and I love my new oncologist at Moffitt Cancer Center who will monitor me from now on. Since our recent move to Florida, I’ve had to search for new cancer specialists, a chore I hadn’t anticipated taking on while recuperating from a second bout of the disease.
The timing of our relocation couldn’t have been worse. I adored my original oncologist who practiced in Houston, Texas, where I’d lived for sixteen years. I fought most of my cancer battles there and didn’t plan on a second assault when we decided to move to Florida during the fall of 2010. I certainly wouldn’t have left at that point had I known the future, but I didn’t. Sometimes life presents choices, and we deal with the decisions we make.
Which brings me back to choosing this memoir’s starting point. I briefly considered Mike’s suggestion of Right Now. Now is important because it measures the time out from surgery: one year out, two years out, five years out. The more years, the better. Now is important because I am living in it. But, where’s the story? I’m an author in search of a story, and my daily routines don’t cut it. They’re boring. As for the future? Well, that’s the sticky one. Tomorrow doesn’t come with a one hundred percent guarantee, so why think about it? Besides, tomorrow’s events haven’t happened yet, so where’s the story?
The story lies in Yesterday. Yesterday provides the yardstick to measure the journey since the original diagnosis. I must sift through Yesterday in order to pull up remembrances and mine for the truth. For that is the meaning of memoir.
Allies and Enemies
Tap. Tap. Tap.
My finger gently struck a spot on my right breast, and I heard the hard echo of a drum beat. The spot was left of center and low down toward the rib cage. I’d noticed it about six weeks earlier because it hurt when I slept on my stomach. So, I’d slept on my back or side and made believe it wasn’t there.
This behavior is called denial.
A supposedly intelligent woman like me, however, can only live in denial for so long. I leaned over and woke my husband.
“Hey, honey. Touch this. Whaddyathink?” I put his hand on my breast, which usually made him very happy, and moved his index finger.
Tap. Tap. Tap.
“What the hell…?” He shot up and stared at me. “I’m no doctor, but I don’t like this.”
My stomach plopped. Mike’s always a straight shooter, and there’s no one in this world I trusted more. After thirty-three years of marriage and raising three sons together, he’d proven himself time and again. In addition, his IQ is in the stratosphere, and that’s a fact.
“Did you just find it or what?” he asked.
I shook my head and whispered, “Six weeks.”
“SIX WEEKS? That’s five weeks and six days too long.”
“Well, I was hoping it would go away. It doesn’t hurt much.”
The next day, I was at my internist. “I feel a lump in my breast,” is a magic phrase that can open a doctor’s door at the last minute. In my case, I’d been a patient of Maya’s for ten years. We were on a first-name basis by then, and I trusted her completely. After she examined my breasts, she tapped that area again, and said, “This spot has got to come out.”
Had she said, Out, out, damn spot?
I was ready to joke, but Maya wasn’t smiling, and I knew I was in trouble, the deep dark kind of trouble people don’t want to face. People like me.
She referred me to an experienced surgeon who, I later discovered, was a sweet guy and long married himself. If I was still somewhat in denial, I now had a plan of action which not only illuminated reality but also removed some of my stress. I made the appointment, saw the surgeon and learned that the thingy in my breast couldn’t be aspirated in the office. It was cut out the following Friday, a simple outpatient procedure under local anesthetic. The arrangement suited me just fine. I left knowing they’d call with the results of the biopsy in about two weeks.
“There’s no reason to mention this to the kids yet,” I said to Mike. “We don’t even know for sure what we’re dealing with, so why make them worry when I’m not even overly worried? After all, these things happen to women all the time.” These things? A misdiagnosis? Much ado about nothing? A mom’s job is to protect her children and not cause them undo anxiety. Mike thought about it for a moment and agreed. With no lab results, there was nothing to tell our three sons—young men focused on their careers, one on the verge of marriage.
Some people would have worried about the pathology outcome twenty-four/seven, but I forgot all about the lab work in the time that followed. After all, I’d done my part by showing up for the procedure, and now the medical people had to do theirs. Besides, I had a very busy life, busy enough to provide lots of distractions.
Do you ever wonder why everything happens at once? I’m talking about big events, not the everyday stuff. Is it mere coincidence? Karma? Revenge?
Three months prior to my medical issue, I’d accepted a challenging new job teaching the GED prep class at a nonprofit agency serving the homeless population. The program was headed by a woman I’d known in my last place of employment, a person who I liked and admired professionally. I applied for the teaching position partly because I trusted her. My instincts proved perfect. Kate and I worked together seamlessly and, in a short time, became fast friends.
On my very first day at this new position, I walked into the classroom to find thirty-five students who’d been without an instructor for two months. They were sitting and chatting, sometimes trying to help each other with the curriculum. Thirsty for a teacher and excited to see me, they wanted to start lessons now. My work was cut out for me—thirty-five students on different reading and math levels—but I was unfazed. Have I mentioned my love of goals and challenges, especially ones I believe in? I do believe in striving for an education. As I told my students, “Once you earn that diploma, no one but no one can take it away. It’s yours forever. It might open doors to a career you’ve never thought of before.”
I’d discovered this truth myself. I hold two degrees in Elementary Education from Hunter College, CUNY, and started my career in the NYC school system teaching third and fourth grade. After moving to Massachusetts with Mike and my then three-year-old first born, I became involved with Adult Education programs for the disadvantaged—high school dropouts, laid-off workers, cash and food stamp recipients—who were looking for a chance to turn their lives around. I loved working with adults and never returned to the grammar school classroom. My Master’s degree opened an unexpected door. I functioned as “principal” of the program, serving hundreds of students annually in academic, job training, and job placement programs.
In Houston, I found similar positions, and was so involved planning for my new students that I forgot about everything else. Everything. Until a Friday evening in late February 2001 when I pulled into my driveway and saw Mike pacing while on the lookout for me. He waved a piece of paper. I parked in the garage and ran to him.
“What’s the matter? What?”
His tears frightened me.
“The doctor called.”
“Doctor? Doctor? What doc...tor?” Uh-oh. That doctor.
And I knew.
First, You Cry. Betty Rollins had been spot-on years ago when she’d titled her book about her mother’s breast cancer.
Second, you visit the bathroom with the ultimate of diarrhea attacks. Fortunately, we had more than one bathroom. In the next thirty minutes, Mike and I were in and out of them like yo-yo’s in syncopated rhythm.
Third, you fight. And never look back.
I forgave us our initial flight response to the bathrooms. I had to, or I’d be stuck in reverse instead of shifting forward. Breast Cancer vs. Linda. I was going to war and immediately pictured an army of knights, swords in hand, leaning forward on their well-trained steeds. I’d read a lot of historical fiction with descriptions of battles so vivid, the plains of war were easy to imagine. Those knights didn’t know if they’d be dead or alive at day’s end, or if they’d be prisoners or free men. The honorable ones either rode out each morning with courage and fought like hell or rode out with queasy stomachs but fought like hell anyway.
“We have allies and we have enemies,” I said to my own Knight in Shining Tinfoil that Friday evening. “But our allies are numerous while the enemies number only two: Cancer and Fear.”
Mike stared at me and waited, because sometimes he knows when to keep quiet. My heart pounded, my nerve endings sizzled like firecracker fuses. Who was that woman dancing a grotesque tarantella in the kitchen? I’d disappeared into in my own crazy world—or was channeling Scarlett’s.
“I’m going to beat this,” I yelled, waving my arms at the ceiling. “I promise you. As God is my witness, I’m going to beat this son-of-a-bitch. I will win, and we will go on with our lives.” Grabbing a blue folder, the kind with pockets inside, I wrote, The Cancer Gone Project.
“Uh…Lin?” I glanced at Mike, my patient audience of one. “There’s more. You need to know something else.”
I shrugged. After the initial news, what else could there be?
“The surgeon didn’t get clean margins when he did the biopsy.”
What did that mean? “So?”
“So, you need another surgery to get rid of any left-over cells.”
And that’s when I learned that for every step forward detours lurked in the dark. After the first explosion, the path to recovery remains strewn with landmines, waiting to trip the innocent.
“We also need to find an oncologist,” continued Mike.
Oncologist. I shivered as words swam in my brain. Oncology. Chemotherapy. Nausea. Radiation.That was the short list. I pictured all the bald heads I’d seen in stories or television ads. I could be facing the same and a whole lot more. Chemistry had been my worst subject in high school, and now I’d have to learn an entirely new bio-chem curriculum with its own vocabulary. We all have our strengths and weaknesses, but truly, this would be a big challenge for me. So, in Scarlett style, I stopped thinking about it for the moment and vowed to worry about the science part after I found an oncologist.
“Call the Coopers,” I said, referring to our neighbors around the corner. “Rose liked her doctor.” Rose had had a mastectomy six months earlier and both she and her husband had sung the praises of her physician—his patience, upbeat attitude, and ability to explain everything. A sweet-natured woman, Rose had seemed so accepting of her fate, so accepting of all the procedures she’d undergone when Mike and I had visited with her at the hospital. While there, I’d tried to be encouraging, chatting and smiling, but in the back of my mind, I kept thinking, “Poor girl. Poor girl.” I sure couldn’t have guessed that a short time later, that “poor girl” would be me. Rose’s sweet nature and attitude suited her. As for me? Not my style. I was definitely not a Rose.
“I’ll call the Coopers,” said Mike. “And then we have to tell the boys.”
My stomach knotted tighter than a tangled fishing line. “And my mom,” I whispered. “Oh, God. How am I going to tell her?”
A good daughter does not cause more pain to a wonderful mother, an eighty-four-year-old widow of a loving husband, living seventeen hundred miles away in New York City, and who’s dealing with severe rheumatoid arthritis. A good daughter shields a caring mother as much as possible.
I started pacing, formulating a plan for Mom. “We’ll call my sister first,” I said. “Give Judy a day to digest the information, then she can be with Mom when I speak to her.” Fortunately, Judy lived only twenty minutes away from our mother.
Perhaps I could have hidden the disease from Mom altogether considering the geographical distance between us. I gave it some thought and dismissed the idea. A secret would have been possible only if my illness required a short-term recovery such as with an appendectomy. Cancer treatment, however, takes time. The side effects are visible. More important, the close relationship between my mom and me had always been based on respect, truth and love. Lots of love. I couldn’t, and wouldn’t, treat her like a child. But…oy. I dreaded telling her.
“Let’s wait until after I see the oncologist.”
“Because by then we’ll have a cancer doctor and a treatment plan…and…and we’ll be able to answer questions with real information.” I paused, noticing my use of the plural subject pronoun. Michael wasn’t the sick one, but I guess he was so much a part of me that “we” came naturally. We were in this thing together. For better or worse.