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Thin Red Line

“You’ll feel better after the surgery,” my psychiatrist said, “and the cancer is cut out.” I scoffed. He knew me too well to think it would be that easy to quell my escalating anxiety. Cognitive behavioral therapy has never been my thing, and there weren’t enough pills in my prescription bottles to make my fears fly out the window as neatly as that 6 mm tumor would be excised from my breast.

The surgery was easy, as was the recovery. The wound healed quickly. Just five weeks later, my scar is a smooth, scarlet sliver that looks more like a careless scratch than evidence of the purposeful cutting that it was. If I were an optimist, I’d say this is a good sign. Things are going well. I’ve also gotten through my first round of chemo with relatively mild complaints. My body is responding, and healing.

But there are so many layers of healing. There’s flesh but also heart and soul. There’s knowing scientifically that we caught this early, that there are targeted therapies to treat this, to kill this, to cure this. And then there’s knowing that forty years ago my mother was diagnosed with the same disease and feeling that I’m destined to meet the same fate.

No, it’s not in our genes. Yet that’s little solace now. My mother struggled terribly but she survived. And then, fifteen years later, some evil cells lurking deep inside her bone marrow sprang to life and eventually, like black balloons dancing in the sky, deflated. She was 72 years old when she died. 

Last month I turned 71. Yes, the 1980s were a very different time in cancer care. And history does not have to repeat itself. But her course haunts me. This has been more than a monkey on my back or an albatross around my neck. For four decades, it’s been an integral part of my very being at an interstitial level. Silent but always present. Any mention of breast cancer alerts every sense in my body to go into defense mode. Don’t let this scare you. You are safe.

I guess not, not this time.

“We’ll get through this,” my psychiatrist continues. I’d love to be reassured by his words, which echo so many others in my world. But I’m a realist and can’t help but wonder: How thin is the line between physical healing and feeling mentally whole again?

I’ll have to let you know.

Deborah Levin
Mount Kisco, New York