Your Oh-My-God-I've-Got-Cancer Checklist

So, you got the call.

Or perhaps sat in a wood paneled office while a solemn and poised professional behind a desk yammered statistics and mouthed strange sounding terminology at you.

What wasn't supposed to ever happen to you...has happened to you.

Cancer.

Yeah, yeah, I know. We all thought it: Cancer happens to other people. Cancer doesn't actually happen to me. I'm the strong one. I help everybody else when they get sick. I'm the pillar of strength best friend, sister, mother, daughter, wife, whatever, you name it, I do it.

Well, it's happened to you. It happened to me too. Once I was the best friend, the sister, daughter, wife, mother, who was diagnosed with breast cancer. After a few weeks packed with tests, scans, experts, consultations and second opinions I got a mastectomy and reconstruction of my left breast.

Being a writer and, truth be told, fairly anal-retentive, I kept promising myself to jot down a few notes to keep handy, suggestions of what helped me.

For the Gal-With-Cancer

1. Okay, I'll say it for you because nobody else will. Yup, you might die. And, yes, it totally and completely sucks. Big time sucks. Nobody wants to talk about it or bring it up. So I will let it rip. Yes, this could kill you. This could be it for you. Dead. What does dead mean anyway? This may be a time to thinking about it. Death. Or, maybe that's the last thing you want to think about. Your call. Whatever your preference, you've landed yourself one, big soul changing event. This will be a messy, uncomfortable, wild time and there is absolutely no way to do everything "right." You will inconvenience others. You will be emotionally unpredictable and perhaps unreliable and you and everybody else will have to get over it. The focus is to survive. Surviving while being pretty or strong or helpful or whatever your previous baggage is (and we've all got it) is secondary.

2. People will be uncomfortable speaking the follow words: Cancer. Death. Dying. Tumor. The best you'll probably get is "lump," "you getting sick," things possibly turning out "badly," things not going "your way," and my personal favorite, "your...um...thing." Try to be compassionate. People love you and do not want to upset you or make things any more difficult. You will find that when you get breast cancer, everyone around you gets it too. It feels like it is happening to them. They are no longer safe in their world because they've had a friend struck by life-lightening. They will also be processing this (If it grows really irritating, try this fun game. Talk about your breast cancer with a guy...not your husband...referring to the misbehaving tit often and watch him figure out how not to look at your chest during the entire conversation. A perverse game, yes. But sometimes perverse humor's all a gal's got).

3. Accept help. I repeat, ACCEPT HELP. Don't turn it away. "Oh, we'll be fine," and "I'll call you if I need anything," is unrealistic, poor prioritizing and almost selfish. Of course, don't let the crazy relative who always snoops around into your home but let those whom you trust carry a few burdens. The point is to live, not to show how strong, actualized and independent you are.

4. If you are responsible for the care of others, write a detailed, chronological list of everything you do, when and how you do it (this may take a few days to hammer out). Others will scoff... "I've been taking care of kids for thirty years and I haven't lost one yet!" or "Honey, how hard can it be to feed and walk a dog? Don't worry."

Do it anyway.

These comments do not help because who the heck are they going to call when Tommy won't eat because his sandwich is cut the wrong way? Or they can't find Kitty? Make the damn list. Make copies. It will give you peace of mind (plus solid evidence if they screw stuff up!)

5. When you want to think about death or can't stop the thoughts from coming, let 'em come. Think about dying. You know you want to. It won't kill you to think about it. Then let them go away. You've got a lot to do (Don't worry. They'll come back).

6. If you've got kids, I found informing teachers helpful. I wanted an extra set of eyes gathering information on how my kids were handling everything. I told the teachers how we explained everything to each child, the language we used, plus important dates (surgeries, etc.).

7. Blame. Wow, toughie. Who to blame? Ancestors? God? Yourself? All of the above? I found that people want somebody or something to blame. Personally, I wasn't that interested. Big deal. It was done. If you have a desire yourself (or feel that others secretly blame you), be careful. You can do everything "right" and still get cancer. I was a forty-one year old who worked out, nursed my kids, ate right, had no known family history of breast cancer and got regular mammograms. I even had a mammogram eleven months before I got my cancer diagnosis. In eleven months my tumor went from undetectable to the size of a large gumball. Go figure. Even if you had a big fat cancerous lump for years and never did a damn thing about it until now, well... it's called denial, my girlfriend. Anyone who hasn't done the denial dance once or twice in their lives can step right up and say, "I blame you for having breast cancer." Then you can whack 'em with your test results. Should knock them out for a few days.

8. If you can, get a second opinion. Then go with the very best care you can get! Even if it means offending someone. Even if your doctor throws a little hissy fit (which one of mine did). Suck it up and plow through, eyes on the best outcome humanly possible. I give you permission to offend people.

9. Don't get any lumps of unknown make-up cut out until you know definitively what they are made up of.

10. Oh yeah. Buy lots of thank you cards. People will be great and you're going to get a lot of flowers and gifts.

11. Last thing...now, this was a very spontaneous act but it gave me a certain amount of peace. Write your will. Go ahead! Plan the wake. The menu, everything. All those things you would like to have happen...write them down. I asked for my friends to all make videotape memories of me for my kids...because memories fade, no matter what we would like to think. Write your own epitaph. Get specific and then let a loved one know that if they don't do what you say...you'll haunt them...consistently, while wearing high heels on a wooden floor very early in the morning.

So you made it though the checklist. And, may I point out...you're still alive. Nope, not dead yet.

Yeah, yeah, eventually, you might die. But remember...SO WILL EVERYBODY ELSE. No one gets out of this particular humanity game alive.

Eventually, God willing and the creek don't rise, you will get the official stamp of "Cancer Free." But know this. No one ever knows for sure if they are cancer free. People think they are. You did. I did. Right now, oodles of people, "healthy" people, are walking around as a few misbehaving cells kick up a ruckus somewhere deep in a bone or an organ or someplace else. Two, ten or twenty years from now...a symptom crops up and it begins for them.

But, at this moment, life is here. In you. So be cranky, messy, happy, sloppy, sad or just plain stunned. There is no wrong. There is no right. There is only today. For everybody.