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Last June I got an email from my friend Sam in Portland telling me that she had been diagnosed with breast cancer. I think it came as quite a shock to everyone. She hadn’t yet turned 30; I had seen her just a few weeks before when she came to Eugene to meet baby Paul and give him a quilt she’d made. She’d seemed vibrant, happy, and healthy when she visited. We’ve been staying in touch via email, and I asked her to share part of her story here:

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One of Sam’s lovely hand-made quilts. Photo credit: Samantha Breen

 

My name is Samantha and I am a fiery, passionate young woman. I am also an elementary school teacher, quilter, printmaker, salsa dancer, and Ed.D (doctorate of education) candidate.

In mid-May 2015 I was reaching for soap in the shower when I hit my left breast, hitting something different, something hard. By May 27, 2015 I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I had a very common type of breast cancer known as IDC (Invasive Ductile Carcimona). I got placed in the Multi-Disciplinary Team for Breast Cancer with an appointment for June 2.

In a PET scan ordered before the appointment, my worst nightmares were revealed: I not only had advanced breast cancer, I had metastatic breast cancer meaning the cancer was Stage IV and had spread to my lung and thigh. I had 0% chance of survival and was told by my all the oncologists in the little exam room along with my parents that they could make me comfortable until the end, but they could not cure me. I was 29 years old.

I ended up being one of the lucky ones. With further examination, they discovered I did not have Stage IV cancer — the spots in my lung and thigh turned out to be non-cancerous. I think that the initial horror that my time left was to be limited and unpleasant led me to be grateful for all moments. I remember waking up from my bilateral (double) mastectomy now breastless, hairless and infertile (from chemotherapy) thinking that these were just battle scars to a better life.

Cancer helped me to clarify my perspectives. I had many friends before I got cancer. Many of them left and stayed away after I got cancer. The friends that have stayed I have learned are true friends, not just friends who are there when it is convenient for them. The deep love my parents have for me is unmatched. I realized that more framed degrees on my wall would not make me happier, but that I should focus on slowing down and enjoying life with the people I enjoy being around.

To help me cope, I go to cancer patient groups. I go to a group that meets weekly that is people mostly 30 or more years older than me and along with a cancer counselor we help each other problem-solve. It is a group made up of people with many different cancers. I also go to a 40-and-under (when diagnosed) group for breast cancer; that group meets once a month. I also walk as much as I can and spend time with the people I love.

If you are just being diagnosed with any kind of cancer, I say you should find a group that works for you. There are writing groups, groups that are just for men, women, and young survivors. Not every group just sits and talks, many groups go on all kinds of outings. For me the greatest help came from another young teacher diagnosed with breast cancer who came to my house when I couldn’t leave for comfort. I hope to do the same for someone else someday.

If you want to be a supportive friend, I suggest finding yourself a job that you can do. The hardest friends to me were the friends who would make plans; I would rearrange many medical appointments, and then they would cancel. I had a friend who loved to drive so she would take me for rides at a good time in my chemotherapy cycle. Other friends lived far away and would send me care packages.

Remember that the worst thing to say or do to someone who has cancer is nothing—it completely invalidates that they exist. Having cancer, I thrive on connection. A hug, a letter, a phone call, they mean the world.

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Please join me in keeping Samantha in your thoughts and prayers as she continues to fight to regain her health.

 

 

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Grandma Alice with Baby -- and Papa too!

Grandma Alice with Baby — and Papa too!

A guest column by Grandma Alice

One of the presents I bought for my granddaughter this Christmas was a CD of children’s folk songs published by Smithsonian (Smithsonian Folkways Children’s Music Collection). I was particularly interested in acquiring a recording of Woody Guthrie singing his classic “Why Oh Why Oh Why,” which I had entertained Marie with on the way to Portland one sunny October day when I was helping the family prepare to move. Spencer drove and Ursula sat in the front passenger seat while I took the job of keeping Marie happy in the backseat. Singing was my choice, and one of the first tunes that surfaced from my labyrinthine store of folk songs was the Guthrie ditty, his effort to explain the world to his children. Picture little Arlo asking, “Daddy, why does an elephant have a long nose?”

As Woody Guthrie put it to Arlo, “Because because because because, goodbye, goodbye, goodbye.”

I’m not sure what brought the song back into my memory. I don’t remember ever singing it to Ursula when she was a child.  Perhaps Marie had already begun to ask that eternal toddler question, “Why?”  and that day, the song just reappeared from out of nowhere. “Why does Marie like to sing,” I sang, “Why oh why oh why?”

Marie began to sing along with me in a gentle, lovely soprano, a remarkable clear tone, and altogether in tune. I was impressed and rather astounded, as she was then but barely 18 months old.

We went on together, with me making up new verses, for a good 45 minutes before Spencer and Ursula began to show signs of annoyance. It’s not so much that they complained. They simply turned on the car radio, at a fairly high decibel level, in an apparently mutual decision to drown me out.

Oblivious, I kept going with it. “Why oh why oh why?” So did Marie.

Call it the grandmother-granddaughter conspiracy.

Now, when I call on the telephone and speak to Ursula, I often hear Marie in the near background singing in that gentle, clear soprano: “Why oh why oh why?”

She’s been listening so much to the new CD that she’s found a new favorite, which is beginning to replace the “why.” Maybe you know it? “Miss Mary Mack Mack Mack, all dressed in black, black, black.”

I’m enough inspired by having a young granddaughter to get out my guitar again on a regular basis. I’m beginning to remember more oldies but goodies. Did you ever hear Odetta sing, “Froggy Went a-Courtin’”?

Do you have any favorite folk songs from your childhood? Or favorites to share with children?