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home : healthy living : healthy living October 4, 2015

6/25/2013 6:07:00 PM
By Mary Lou Sanelli

It happened a few years ago around this time, when June moves in so moist and leafy, it’s difficult to imagine a city any greener. My fingers found a lump. I bolted upright, but my life turned upside-down. The topple happened fast.

Fear has an order to it, generally. First, panic builds. Then I’m going to say something like, “God, can you believe this?” It becomes more difficult to focus on one particular thing, so I multitask like crazy: clean my desk, clean the house, trying to insert a sense of order — everything nice and neat, the underlying yearning for peace, as if I can control anything. 

Then you can just bet I’m going to sit on the kitchen floor and have myself a good cry.

Eventually, reality stumbles in, gives way to the facts — at which point, the word “cancer” entered my life in a whole, new way. 

The diagnosis

I don’t recall a thing I thought about on my walk to Virginia Mason, nor anything I heard. I recall sitting on a bench near the parking lot, knowing I could summon the courage to walk inside. There was just no part of me that wanted to.

Finally, I swung open the door.

In the waiting room, a pair of flies probed the windowpane. You see, I had to pick up the magazine to swat them. The buzzing would have sunk me too deep. 

I thought of my friend Jane (who literally wouldn’t hurt a fly) and wondered if I’m too heartless, too kill-the-dang-fly-there’s-no-such-thing-as-karma. I decided it really didn’t matter one way or the other because I won’t be more saint-like anytime soon. 

I also remember the cover of the magazine I used as a flyswatter: Cosmo. Two beautifully round and utterly gorgeous breasts! My first thought was, “How could anyone put such a magazine anywhere near the oncology wing?” It just didn’t seem possible.

Days later, the most amazing thing about the whole experience — the very thing that was most affirming and grounding about it — were two words anyone who’s been through this would agree sound better set together than any other pair of words: benign cyst. 

There is no relief like the one I felt.

A feeling I want

I still can’t get enough of the facts, like this: Every three minutes, a woman is diagnosed. 

I do the math in my head (or the kind of math I can do): For one in every intimate group of us, a pinprick-sized cell will sneak up from behind like a hit man. 

And for those of us caught off-guard and then, by some miracle, spared, the question becomes: “Am I fated to have lone-breast nightmares for the rest of my life?” That is, after, “God, can you believe how lucky I am?” 

My cyst didn’t need to be removed like a mole or ovary to stave off fate. The only thing cut from me was the ability to take anything about the good things for granted. This is a feeling I want to last.

Those fearful days were some of my darkest. Now, in terms of gratitude, they are aflame. My guess is that some terrors befall us so that we come to the things that really matter. 

The thanks I feel still grows — stronger through sharing this.

MARY LOU SANELLI’s latest book is “Among Friends.” Visit her website: To comment on this column, write to

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