Community column: Breast cancer begets gratitude for the day
October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
I share my column with a friend and writer whose poems about her experiences with breast cancer are yet unpublished, but appear here with the story of her survival.
About one in eight U.S. women will develop invasive breast cancer over the course of her lifetime (www.breastcancer.org).
These are just numbers until you or someone you love finds that lump and a biopsy confirms the presence of abnormal cells, as was the case nearly two years ago.
A very dear friend of mine, Diane Porter Goff, had the awful distinction of delivering my first intimate encounter with the disease.
I’ve been lucky to date, statistically speaking. Two sisters of a sister-in-law have beat it back, but our conversations are more reserved. Diane and I — we talk about everything; no subject taboo between us.
Our friendship was built around writing and talking about writing. Diane is a published poet and author.
We met in a graduate-level class at Hollins. Deciding to carpool for the remainder of that semester, we gabbed like girlfriends with decades of back story, all the way there and all the way back — through that first semester, the next, the following year. We coordinated our schedules to sustain the habit.
Upon graduation, we talked less frequently, but with the same intensity, when we could find the time.
It was more difficult without the Hollins commute. I’m in the thick of raising children, have a small business, and try to write from time to time.
Diane keeps busy with her art, travel, and deep connections to this community.
She and husband, Richard, have lived here for 41 years.
He delivered the news to me — in a Christiansburg parking lot under a dark December sky. I didn’t recognize the vehicle immediately, so I was startled by the abrupt appearance and then nearly knocked to the pavement by the words: “Diane has breast cancer.”
Life charms unravel
The stitches picked, the thread rotten,
Pain whittle, whittle:
Jackknife, steak knife, cleaver, bludgeon.
Bedclothes hiss around my ankles.
The air boils,
Tea bleeds in the cup.
— From “Tether”
- Diane Goff’s daughter, Larkin Goff, took this image of her mother during the thick of chemo.
When we talked, she kept her cool, but the ends of our sentences were choked by tears and fear. There was some good news — “Found it early.”
There was bad news a bit later — “They recommended chemo.” I planned a visit after the first few rounds, when she was beginning to feel a bit better. She warned me — “All the hair is gone.”
I knew a woman who shaved her head
Releasing all outer beauty
To walk a spiritual path.
My red hair, my only vanity.
— From “Tonsured”
She temporarily lost her cinnamon curls, but she retained her writerly perspective — capturing details and creating dimensions — and continued our candid talks.
I learned about chemotherapy, radiation, and facing mortality through colorful metaphor and sweet, honest chatter over tea or a bowl of soup.
She described the drip room, the aching joints, lost vision, the giant black spider that haunted her dreams one night when she was hospitalized with a bleeding ulcer.
The chemo was in charge, for a while.
In the drip room
My veins roll away from the needle.
Threaded at last
You enter, flushing hot.
A knight in burnished silver,
You gallop through my body,
Burning out cancer cells with the tip of your lance,
The grate of your gold-plumed helmet
Hiding a handsome face.
The following days you drag me into dullness
A drab half-twilight where we lie intertwined
In some distant stable room
Fit only for ailing animals.
— From “Galahad”
Diane found blessings and bounty through it all — friends with casseroles and support aplenty, savvy and caring doctors, a massage therapist and acupuncturist refusing payment until she was completely well, a devoted daughter and dedicated husband, who supplied essential bedside vigilance during unexpected crises.
They herd the door.
The snarl leaps into your voice,
Claws and pricked ears,
You beat back the dark
Like the pulsing breath
Of some feral god.
— From “Instinct” for Richard
And a deep-seated appreciation for the now. “Gratitude for a normal day,” she says with a smile.
The reminder to savor is a giant lesson. So is the practice of monthly self-exams, which is how she first noticed an abnormality.
Another set of numbers to consider: In 2011, there were more than 2.6 million breast cancer survivors in the U.S.
“Cancer is no longer a death sentence,” Diane Goff reminds us all.
By Catherine Van Noy
Special to The Burgs | 639-3330
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