Breast cancer awareness

Cancer is larger than life

Posted 10/6/21

Just a few hours before driving to Scranton Breast Center for my six-month check up with my breast cancer team, Annemarie from the River Reporter sent me an email asking if I could write something …

This item is available in full to subscribers.

Please log in to continue

Log in
Breast cancer awareness

Cancer is larger than life


Just a few hours before driving to Scranton Breast Center for my six-month check up with my breast cancer team, Annemarie from the River Reporter sent me an email asking if I could write something for breast cancer awareness month. I wrote back, “Let’s see what the mammo says and I can tell you if I will be up for writing something.”  

I responded in this kind of carefree way—the way I tend toward life in general.

But when I got into my car (munching on an apple instead of a handful of jelly beans because cancer and sugar aren’t a good mix) I suddenly got nervous. Not the jazzed-up, pacing nervous energy that I get before I go on stage, or the multi-tasking nervous energy just before guests arrive prior to a dinner party—no, this was a kind of deep anxiety that made taking deep breaths a challenge.

I normally can handle a lot of stress and pressure—but that hour and fifteen minute drive was tough. I felt dizzy and overwhelmed, almost more anxiety than I had felt in my last year of treatments. What if they found more cancer?  Would I be able to do it all again?

A year ago, in September 2020, I had my regular annual mammo (yes, this is my moment when I get to say annuals are a good idea), the doc saw something in the left breast. A week or so later I had a biopsy (which was a shockingly dramatic experience), and it was discovered that I had a papillary carcinoma lump in situ. In situ means the cancer has not spread. And my cancer was ER and PR positive—meaning estrogen and progesterone drive the tumor growth.

The “you have cancer” phone call is not a good one. I was at the Farm Arts Collective office with my colleague Jess, and I think I had to ask the doctor to say it three times before her words sunk in. I thought, “But I eat organic cabbage!”  It didn’t matter. I had to have surgery.

I did not consider not having surgery. Even though I tend to question the business of corporate medicine, taking the lump out (lumpectomy) made perfect sense. It seemed like the right thing to do—to get it out. The wonderful surgeon, Dr. Kelly, did just that very precisely and expertly. I felt extreme pain for three to four days afterward—more than I expected in fact, but heavy pain drugs and CBD helped.

We realized, after surgery, that we had to act fast and make decisions about follow-up treatments. Chemo was not recommended in my case, but radiation and the drug Tamoxifen were. Some research and work was required, to talk to various radiation doctors and oncologists about what to do (radiation and five years of drugs are the normal accepted follow-up). And radiation needs to begin within weeks of surgery.  

My friends, family and husband were extremely helpful in connecting me with info, experts and to some doctors at NYU and Sloan Kettering for second opinions. Most importantly, they helped to keep the information and opinions documented, and framed with logic.

I was really feeling hesitant about radiation until Dr. Wang, a radiologist, asked me why I didn’t want to have the best treatment for lowering the risk of a recurrence. He said to me, “You have everything to lose, a farm, a theater, a son.” He questioned why someone like me, who has everything, thought I could somehow be “above” losing it. Zip! Zap!

I signed up for radiation.

The “make lemonade” part of my story comes in here. Going to Scranton every day for five weeks in mid-winter, lying on a cold table in a chilly room (kept freezing cold for the equipment), my breast getting zapped—I made all this bearable, almost fun. My friends signed up to do the driving, we often went to my favorite Indian grocery, we explored Scranton, listened to the recording of Hamilton, and talked about a million things. I am so thankful for all those wonderful rides.

Why was I so scared going back to the Breast Care Center for my follow-up? Which was, by the way, an “all clear” check-up.

I think cancer is larger than life. It frightens because it takes lives—we all know that. I lost someone close to me two years ago to pancreatic cancer. It was tragic.

For me, cancer is a scary boogeyman that looms and dooms and frankly, I am still grappling with it all. And this fear is uncomfortable. I also think it makes other people around me uncomfortable. They kind of ask but don’t always want to “go there.”

Perhaps breast cancer awareness should not only be about equity in care and treatment, research and education but also a forum for talking about our deep fear of and social discomfort about sickness, vulnerability, and death.

On that closing note… Lemonade anyone?

Tannis Kowalchuk is a farmer and founder of the Farm Arts Collective,  an agri-cultural organization that makes its home on Willow Wisp Organic Farm. Its mission is to build community and cultural practice through four main pillars of activity: farming, art, food, and ecology. For more about the collective, click here.


No comments on this item Please log in to comment by clicking here