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Sharing the News, Reading Reactions

Special to The Times

When it first appeared possible that I might have breast cancer, it occurred to me to try to keep this news confined to a select few. I know, hard to believe--I am, after all, now writing regularly about it in a newspaper--but, really, the thought crossed my mind. I particularly didn't want to tell my various employers, since my natural inclination is to not let personal matters interfere with work.

The practicalities quickly put a kibosh on such a plan. As a freelance person, "no" is not a part of my usual vocabulary.

Plus, I felt the whole bald thing might tip a few hands.

But once you let the cat out of the bag, it's impossible to stuff it back in, and pretty soon my husband, Steve, and I found ourselves telling people fairly indiscriminately. It's been fascinating observing the reactions that have followed.

I called my sister, Deborah, an ob / gyn nurse practitioner, first so she could tell me this was nothing. Which she did nicely right up until it became obvious to her that it was, actually, something. Not only has she since flown out regularly from her home in Texas, but she didn't make plans, at least at first, to ever go back.

"I'll sell my house and move home if I have to," she said firmly. "This is my sister."

We kept the news from my parents and brother until virtually the last possible moment, not wanting them to spend days fretting for potentially naught. Right before the final test came back, Deborah called to prepare them. When official word came down, my parents reacted by promptly leaving on a trip to Mexico and then one to South America. Oh, OK, these trips were long in the planning and I specifically told them they should not cancel, but let's tease them about it anyway.

My niece, by the way, helped put matters in perspective with the glass-is-half-full comment that hair loss from chemo would mean not having to shave my legs for a while. It's a good point.

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In order to alert a lengthy list of friends, I took advantage of the modern age and sent an e-mail to everyone whose address I could remember, delivering my bit of tidings. (Good news: I'm going to be fine. Bad news: I have breast cancer.)

The reactions flew thick and fast, from phone calls to responding e-mail. My favorite was from Brigid in New York, who began her note with, "Boy, you know how to wake a girl up in the morning!" and concluded with "Heavens, does this suck."

At some point, I was warned that some friends might disappear when my news got out. Bosh, I thought, not my friends. After all, these were the pals starting prayer circles, sending flowers and hats, offering to leave work at less than a moment's notice should I ever need a ride anywhere.

And maybe misery simply loves company, but I was cheered enormously by a call from a movie producer friend who had just discovered his high-profile flick was, shall we say, disappointing.

"Mary," he declared, "the awfulness of breast cancer versus the awfulness of my movie--believe me when I say it might be close."

Despite our efforts, some people didn't hear right away. But I did learn a really effective way of getting news out about yourself is to write an article about it for the L.A. Times. The phone rang off the hook that first Monday morning. Hugely touching were the number of people who weren't precisely close friends, but who leaped to offer their support and good wishes.

But when the dust settled, I began to notice odd holes in the friends' ranks. There were some people who remained puzzlingly, suspiciously silent.

And so I learned about the people who Don't Know What to Say. As in, "Mary, so-and-so would love to talk / write to you, but they Don't Know What to Say."

How hard could it be to express sympathy? But apparently, our society has ill-prepared people for dealing with grave matters (or so the excuse goes), and so some feel it is better to say nothing at all than risk saying . . . what? What is it that we would fear to say?

This should be particularly embarrassing when I have total strangers, courtesy of this series of articles, writing to me with words of encouragement. Somehow, they don't have any trouble knowing What to Say. The most fabulous was from the seventysomething woman who wrote, "Bald head up high, Mary, and on to the fight!"

Actually, I take it back. There are some things one shouldn't say. One well-meaning person, on the eve of my first chemo, when I was practically shaking with nerves, told me, based on personal own chemo experience, exactly when I would start "feeling terrible." Which gave me ever so much to look forward to. As it turned out, that did not happen to me. But it did teach me a valuable lesson: While everyone's own experience is valid, it remains just that. Please couch it in those terms, rather than in absolutes.

Other bits of advice that could be avoided: Don't tell someone going through chemotherapy that chemo doesn't help breast cancer and that it can kill. (I got this happy and, at least in regard to the first part, dubiously accurate information not only from letters, but also from a stranger who buttonholed my husband at a party.)

Say you do find yourself in a similar situation and still Don't Know What to Say. Herewith, as a public service, a handy check list:

1) This really, really, really sucks.

2) I hereby vow to check my breasts / the breasts of those close to me regularly.

3) Do you need any chocolate?

I promise you, that covers everything.

Still not sure? Follow the simple but sublime example of one friend.

Immediately after hearing my news, Tracy sent me a card. On the front was a dog visiting a sick doggy pal. Inside, the card said, "Heal!"

Under which she wrote, "'Nuff said."

Indeed.

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Next: Radiation.

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