My Turn: With age, the wisdom to fight cancer

I am now almost finished with my journey of medical treatment for breast cancer. I have been given examinations, explanations and expectations; I have gone through and successfully recovered from surgery; I have just completed a schedule of radiation therapy; and I will now be starting on a special prescribed medication.

So far, I have coped well, made progress, experienced only moderate discomfort or disruption.

Indeed, during this time, I have come to be regarded as almost a “model” older patient. I followed instructions, I kept appointments, I made adjustments, I tolerated the demands of the schedule, I accepted the fatigue of the treatments. I didn’t express anger or envy of others or pity for myself — at least, not too much.

I remember that, at first, I worried that my age — over 80 — would be a problem in coping with cancer treatment, but instead I found that, in some ways I coped well because of my age, not in spite of it. That’s not to say there’s any “good” or “better” age to have breast cancer. But different skills and strengths can be found at different ages.


I am not talking of any unusual or profound wisdom I’ve discovered over my years, but of the practical realities I’ve experienced over my years.

There are three long-ago learned lessons that have been especially important for me in my cancer treatment.

First, I know not to expect many straight, smooth paths on any journey. Life presents happenings that I may not seek or anticipate or want. I do not have a choice about these, but I do have some choice about what I do about them — not necessarily how to “fix” them, but how to face them.

Second, I know through long experience that there are few safe or sure shortcuts. If I do some things only partially or occasionally, or alter or “forget” other things, I may save myself time or inconvenience — but I also may bring risk or harm. And I will be the one who pays the highest cost.

Third, there few absolute guarantees. Even if I try my hardest, do my best, care the most, I may not necessarily see the “happy” ending I hope for, or believe I deserve. All I can do is all I can do, and hope that it works out well — or, at least, well enough.

These lessons may seem negative, because they teach what cannot be done. But at the same time, they teach what can and should be done.

And finally, at my age, I have lived long enough to not feel the same terror of threat to my lifespan that a younger person may feel. I’m not saying that I don’t care about how long I live, that I don’t want or won’t try to do all I can, but it does mean that I can think differently about my life.

I can think less about counting the time I have left in my life and instead think more about making the time I have left in my life still count.


Hawthorne is a retired clinical social worker and emeritus faculty member of the School of Social Work at USC. She lives in Northridge. Her earlier essay about her experiences with breast cancer was published Oct. 4 and can be read at

My Turn is a forum for readers to recount an experience related to health or fitness. Submissions should be no more than 500 words. They are subject to editing and condensation and become the property of The Times. Please e-mail We read every essay but can’t respond to every writer.