Cancer may define my death, but it won't define my life
The following is the first in a series of commentaries Heather Block will write for NewsWorks.
I am not the woman dressed in pink. I am not a woman who sees herself as a survivor. In my way of thinking, all women are survivors of something. Having cancer doesn't make you a hero.
Cancer was a speed bump in my life, nothing more. Ok, a huge speed bump, but I refused to allow it to define me. Others saw my life as a series of adventures. I worked in dozens of countries. I was a "fixer" of sorts. Whether the goal was to extend the reach of governance to remote provinces in Afghanistan or to monitor elections in Kosovo or to train police to work with communities in FARC-controlled villages in Colombia or favelas in Brazil, I figured out the plan. I made it happen. I got the job done.
But my secret is I am terribly afraid of living in a rut, and I would go to great lengths to avoid that rut. Ruts were decisions that, once made, did not allow a way out. To me, ruts were 9-to-5 routines, working in cubicles, major debt keeping you at jobs you hate, miserable relationships. Breast cancer felt like a rut. Everyone who had it went through chemo and surgery and yah, yah, yah. I was more afraid of losing my income and my edge. Contacts only lasted so long.
So I held on by my fingernails and got through treatment. I was told they had to kick my arse to cure me, and so they did. The piece of paper that listed my odds became my talisman. The 10-year relapse rate for women that had a mastectomy plus chemo plus hormone therapy was only 22 percent — 78 percent of women were cured. I never doubted the cure.
I remember telling the surgeons that I would give them three months to cure me, as I had things to do. How they must have laughed when I left the room. But I was cured. My hair grew back, my life resumed and I began to travel again. And I never stopped working. I was rather famous at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad for being the woman who never slept. I worked night and day. My work gave me structure and a focus beyond cancer. As long as I was working, I was fine.
A routine test two years after my cure set off the alarm bells. The docs at Johns Hopkins insisted on a biopsy. I knew it was scar tissue and insisted they were wasting my time and theirs. The radiologist called, and as I laughed into the phone and asked if he would now agree that they had been mistaken, he said, "I'm sorry. It is cancer."
With that, everything changed. I'm one of the unlucky 22 percent. Breast cancer will kill me. And it may define my life's end, but hopefully on my terms. And so this story begins.