"Let The Dance Begin" By Mary Helen Mays

Updated: Jun 11, 2020

September 11, 2001 – Sitting in the gate area, waiting for Southwest #739 to El Paso. I’d moved there a year or so before for a new job with a non-profit that had a mission that I resonated with. Being part of an organization dedicated to opening healthcare access to the underserved was a passion of mine. In the days of Clinton Healthcare Reform, it seemed like a once in a lifetime opportunity. But it came with more political and personality frustrations and dysfunction than I’d imagined. Since moving, I’d chosen to return to San Antonio for primary care and dental visits rather than getting established with care in El Paso. Before I had moved, my Primary Care doctor, wise woman that she is, insisted that I get a baseline mammogram. At first, I resisted. I had no history of breast cancer in my family and, frankly, all my female friends had talked about was how painful mammograms were. I was in no hurry to sign up.

However, Dr. Lopez prevailed. Flatly telling me she wouldn’t renew my hypertension meds unless I got my first mammogram, she forced my hand. I figured having my boobs squeezed for a few minutes vs. the risks associated with uncontrolled hypertension – well, the choice was simple for me.

So, on 9/10/2001 I returned to the CTRC for my 6-month follow-up mammogram. I knew I had ‘dense tissue’ which made denoting changes more challenging. At this visit, I was asked to wait while the radiologist looked at the images. She then came out, introduced herself and said that they had detected a change in some of the areas they had been watching over time (‘watching’ – first I’d heard that). ‘It’s most likely a benign calcification’ but they wanted a biopsy to make sure. Asked to go to University Hospital to make the biopsy arrangements, I sat in my silent car, gazing out into a beautiful fall San Antonio day. I thought ‘What are you doing? Your life isn’t here, it’s in El Paso. You need to somehow move this all to El Paso.’ So, I returned to the CTRC, gathered my paperwork and images and called Southwest to reschedule my flight to El Paso the morning of 9/11.

The morning of 9/11/2001, I sat in the gate area waiting for my flight, holding the bright pink sleeve containing my mammogram images, complete with the illustration of a woman’s breasts printed on it. Thinking but not thinking, watching the sun rise on another beautiful blue sky and fall day. I looked up to find that a woman had walked over and sat down next to me. Having seen my bright pink ‘badge of courage’, she said, “I’m a mastectomy survivor and I just wanted to offer you encouragement.” Words I know now were spoken of compassion and the hope of helping, freaked me out, nonetheless. I don’t remember my response but I’m sure it was something along the lines of ‘no, this is nothing. I’ve recently moved to El Paso and …..’. Southwest #739 boarded at 6:55 a.m., scheduled to land in El Paso at 6:45 am, thanks to the magic of time zone changes.

Coming off the plane, I really didn’t notice any of my fellow passengers, noises, or sense of anything. I was in my mind, my world and I just walked down the concourse. The El Paso airport has a long, central escalator where at the top sits security. Once through that, you went either right or left to catch your plane. At the bottom of the escalator was a Mexican restaurant with a jumbotron type TV screen so that as you came down the escalator, you watched whatever was showing on the screen. I recognized the lone figure standing in front of the screen, a man from my flight, holding his briefcase watching the images of a building engulfed in black smoke. I didn’t stop walking; but I thought ‘It’s awfully early in the morning to be showing a disaster movie.’

I walked out into the crisp, dry air of the high desert that is El Paso. And, the clear blue sky of the morning. I thought later how it matched the clear blue sky around the tower on the television screen, a stark contrast to the billows of black smoke. In my car, I waited at the parking toll gate for what seemed an eternity. The toll taker finally appeared, and I asked what was going on; he responded that a plane had hit a building in New York. Oh. Not asking for details, I thought how sad. Small planes flying into buildings isn’t unheard of but rare. I drove home – preparing to drop off my things and then going to the office. As I sat on my sofa, intending to watch some morning TV before heading out the door, with my pink mammogram envelope on the coffee table in front of me, I watched the second tower collapse. And, for a moment, I felt my life collapse as well. And, while my personal devastation would feel as hard, sudden, and brutal as that tower falling, there was no ‘community healing’ that would seem to accompany my first dance with cancer.

Dancing. Never one myself, I grew up watching the classic dancers; Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly. Move upon move, gracefully executed. Whether dancing with a lamppost in the rain or an animated mouse, Gene and Fred made it look so effortless. I learned later that each practiced hour on end until they reached their standard of perfection. The moves in my first dance with cancer seemed choppy, erratic, and stumbling. And, painful.

They don’t tell you that dancing with cancer is never going to be perfection. Like it or not, you will stumble through the steps. With God’s grace and the love of those who hold you close, even those you may not realize are around, each move gets a tiny bit smoother. The moves I made in my first dance, I handled very differently in my second dance (I got a second chance on the dance floor in late 2014).

Juxtaposition provides great insight: Dance 1: Due to the politics and internal tension of my small non-profit in 2001, I didn’t feel safe in telling anyone about my diagnosis and treatment process. While everyone in the office was posting signs of support for 9/11 and discussing the recovery efforts, I moved through my doctor’s appointments, biopsy, surgery and recovery in silence having told only one or two people in my near environment. I told my family in an email; I couldn’t bear to make a phone call. I even went for my biopsy alone on my birthday. Dance 2: I was teaching a large class at UTSA and on receiving my diagnosis and treatment plan, I knew I needed to tell my students how life for me, and our class, might change. So, on my selected date, after saying hello, I walked in front of the desk and said ‘I want to tell you some news about me. I have been recently diagnosed with Stage 1 breast cancer. In the next couple of weeks, I’ll begin chemotherapy. I don’t know how it will impact me; I will probably be tired and bald. I want you to know that I am still here as your teacher and we will continue through our class best as possible.’ I remember the field of wide eyes and stunned faces. After a few well wishes and condolences, I stepped back to the podium and began class.

Dance 1: Wishing my family, my brother, could have been able to physically be around me for support. Living in San Antonio, living his own life, that wasn’t in the cards. Sometimes angry about that, I realized later that he was doing what and the best he could. I mourned not having loved ones and friends near at that time. But, he was always there to talk with me on the phone, answering my questions, listening to my angst, making me laugh. He always makes me laugh. Dance 2: Living back in San Antonio during my second cancer dance, for each chemotherapy infusion, my brother would buy lunch and bring it up to the CTRC. As I had chemo drugs drip into me, he and I would have lunch as we talked about events of the time, family news and gossip and we would laugh. His willingness to step inside my treatment process was and is still a big thing. And, he still makes me laugh!

Dance 1: Rejection by the ‘sisterhood’. I was an emotional, gooey mess during my first cancer dance. My doctors thought it might be helpful to talk with someone who had recently had a breast cancer diagnosis and completed treatment. Armed with the names and numbers of two women, I called the first. Yes, she was expecting my call. When was I diagnosed? Had I had my surgery? When did I begin chemo or radiation? All was well until I told her that I had been diagnosed at Stage 0 and didn’t require chemo or radiation. ‘Only’ a mastectomy with reconstruction. And, I could hear the door on the conversation firmly close. It was a short conversation. Second person on my list; maybe her reaction will be different. Same questions; same answers. Same firmly shut door. Clearly, in this ‘sisterhood’, my fortunate very early diagnosis and curative surgery (mastectomy), meant a lack of suffering (i.e., chemotherapy or radiation). The message: I wasn’t a real breast cancer survivor. I didn’t participate in events like a Komen Walk because I felt like a fraud. I had magically dodged the bullet. I hadn’t had my ticket punched. Later I asked a friend who was active with the American Cancer Society if I could really count myself as a breast cancer survivor; she assured me that quite definitely yes, I was a breast cancer survivor. Dance 2: Sad to say, when I was told that I would require chemotherapy, there was a small part of my brain and spirit that said, ‘Ah, ha! NOW I have my ticket punched! NOW, I have suffered according to the standard.’ And, then I thought, fuck them all and went about the dance moves of living.

I still don’t group participate in cancer awareness activities like walks and so on. My mission now is to see everyone who has experienced cancer and honor the dance they are engaged in. To show that you may not feel you have the right moves, but even if you stumble, you will rise. To demonstrate listening, compassion, and insights (when asked!). And, to show those who are figuring out their own dance with cancer, if you can let the music rise and carry you, it will; He will; love will.

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