I’ve Lived With Cancer
By VIRGINIA HILTON WHITNEY: as told to WATTER S. ROSS
One morning I stretched in bed and felt a pain in my right breast. I touched the spot with my fingers; there was a tiny lump, about half the size of an olive. I lay there for a minute thinking. I was 37 years old. What a terrifying coincidence. Mother had been 37 when she had her operation for breast cancer. I wasn’t sure my lump was anything serious, but I remembered how it had been with Mother. She was the sort of person who believed it a disgrace to be ill. She waited too long to see the doctor. Ger operation hadn’t cured her; the cancer recurred in the uterus, and the second time they didn’t operate. They treated her with radium, but that didn’t work either. She died when I was 19, a senior in college.
With these memories crowding in one me, I wanted to see a doctor right away. My husband Hod (a nickname for Horace) and I, with our two little girls, had just moved to Seattle, and we didn’t know any doctors there. After a bad experience with obstetrician who diagnosed the lump as “just nerves,” I went eventually to an internist. He felt the lump and send me immediately to a surgeon. The surgeon told me the lump ought to come out the next day. He would have it examined on the spot by a pathologist. If it turned out to be cancer, he would go right ahead and do a radical mastectomy; remove the breast and all surroundings tissue likely to be invaded by cancer, including some muscles and the lymph nodes under the arm. He knew about my mother and wasn’t about to take any chances. I was pretty sure it wasn’t cancer. I may have prayed about it. Raised a Presbyterian, I had married a Mormon. Not wanting a house divided, my daughter and I had studied Mormon faith and been baptized the preceding year.
I knew the bible quotation: “Is any sick among you? The prayer of faith shall save the sick,” we asked some of out Mormon friends, elders in the church, to come to the hospital and pray. They came, put their hands on my head and asked the Lord’s blessing, and prayed for my recovery. It was a simple, spontaneous act, not words read out of a book. But in this time-honored ceremony. I knew I had been blessed—that there had been communication with Our Lord.
The next day, when I was taken to the operating room, both Hod and I were quite calm. When they didn’t bring me out after a few hours, he knew that they must have found cancer. He says he didn’t worry, and I believe him. He has a calm faith in God, and he trusted our doctors—and he has always made me feel the same way.
My friend thought when I woke up after the operation was that there was a ten-ton truck on my chest. This was the pressure bandage put on to keep fluid from accumulating. “We’re sorry,’ a doctor said, “but we had to do the radical.” I was pretty groggy from the anesthesia, but even so I was shocked. Remember, I was only 37—that seems very young to me now, 16 years later—and I was proud of my body. I knew what the alternative was, though, and the doctors cheered me by saying that they had got out all the cancer in one piece of tissue. As far as the surgeons could tell, I was free of disease: “You might as well worry about being hit by an automobile,” he said. “As to think that you will die of cancer.”
But what really convinced me that I was going to live was a peculiar experience I had a day or two after the operation. I was lying in bed, quite alone, when I heard a voice say, “You are going to be fine.” It’s possible that I was still feeling the effects of drugs, but I heard that voice as clearly as I’ve ever heard anything in my life. It dramatically renewed my faith, gave me strength and tranquility.
After nine days I was able to go home. Hod came and got me. He acted as though I had just got over a bad cold, or something equally trivial. That night we watched a television verity shoe with a line of chorus girls wearing low-cut gowns. I began to cry. Hod turned to me and said, “and what are you crying about?” It made so mad that I quiet crying—and I’ve never cried since. What he said may seem heartless, but he was under doctor’s orders: tender, loving care was great, but sympathy would only get me feeling sorry for myself.
I was very touchy at first. The doctor said, “You must have something to help you bathe; otherwise you might lose your balance and fall.” When I protested, “You don’t mean you want me to let my husband see me!” he just laughed and said, “Of course I do.” And Hod was so unconcerned about the scar that I began to get over my embarrassment. About four weeks after the operation, I went to a department store for my prosthesis—a false breast worn in a brassiere. The woman in the lingerie section was merry understanding, and the prosthesis was quite comfortable.
After a radical mastectomy you have to work to recover the use of your arm. It is painful, because the muscles have been cut; but if you don’t exercise they heal in a stiff and awkward way. So I did what the doctors ordered: walked my fingers up the wall, waved my arms, everything to get the motion back. I love golf, and was especially anxious to get back to it. There were some twinges as I began swinging a club, but I kept at it. When I first went out to the course, I was rather nervous. But I took a full swing and something tense me relaxed as that white ball flew into the sun. It was a nice drive, straight done the fairway.
I was even more nervous the first time I put on a bathing suit at a friend’s pool. Would my scar, which went rather high in my neck, embarrass the others? Well, nothing risked, nothing gained. It was hot, and I wanted to swim. So I walked out, trembling a little inside, and dived into the pool. Nobody even noticed.
As the years passed, the operation receded from by thoughts. The girls grew up and married. Hod and I had a wonderful time. Of course I had the checkups the doctors ordered, including chest X-rays and the Pap test, every six months at first and then every year. But there were no further problems. I had long ago considered myself cured when I discovered a lump in my left breast as I was taking a shower. I reported directly to my surgeon. “I don’t know what it is.” He said, “So we’ll operate and find out. With your history, even if the lump is not malignant, I will remove the breast. But I’ll not do a radical unless the lump is malignant.”
Two days later they operated. The lump was not malignant—but underneath he did find a spot of cancer. When I came out of anesthesia, the doctor told me this—and that he had had to do the radical. I wasn’t feeling so flippant, but my retort was, “Hurray, now I match!” I now felt that my troubles were behind me. The pathologist’s report was negative, meaning that the cancer had been confined to the one spot. So I was concerned more about regaining use of the left arm as soon as possible, and seeing my new grandson, than about the threat of future disease. Actually, the second operation was easier to take, both emotionally and physically, than the first—and I was playing golf within two months.
After moving from Seattle to Salt Lake City, I went to see dermatologist about a lingering ear infection. He took a biopsy and told me there was local cancer-cells involvement. “Please don’t be alarmed,” he said. “It’s not metastasis [spreading] of the breast cancer, just a basal cell skin cancer,” But it had got into the cartilage, and needed some plastic surgery so, I entered the hospital. As a precaution, the surgeon ordered a regular checkup, including chest X-ray, before we went to the operating room. While I was still unconscious, he told Hod that the X-ray had disclosed a walnut-sized lump in my right lung that would have to come out. “How are we going to tell her? He asked. Hod said, “Just tell her. She can stand the truth as well as I can.”
They gave me five days to recover from the ear operation, and then we went back to surgery for the lung. It was a much longer and more difficult operation than the mastectomies, and more painful afterward. For three days I was in intensive care. But there was good news from my doctor. The pathology report showed that the cancer—it was definitely metastases of the breast cancer—had been confirmed to that single tumor which he’d removed with the middle lobe of my right lung.
Nevertheless, I began to feel resentful. I knew I’d been lucky, but I was getting a bit tired of being so lucky so many times, perhaps because I was older, 51. But after six weeks—a month at hoe—the doctor said I was recuperating perfectly and could go with my husband to a convention in Coronado, California. It was beautiful there, sunny and warm, and I began to feel strong again.
For a year I was fine, traveling with Hode, playing golf, visiting our grandchildren. And them I had an attack of pneumonia. During a series of sputum tests, cancer cells were found. This means that there is cancer in my chest. They’ve been giving me radiation treatments to reduce fluid accumulation, and now chemotherapy has been started. The situation is not good, but I know that I’ve been helped before I believe my doctors when they say there is a good chance of arresting the spread of the cancer.
People often ask me if my cancer is hereditary. The doctors say no, although they think there may be a hereditary tendency in some families for some forms of cancer. Since my mother and I both had breast cancer, this is clear warning to my daughters, one doctor told me. They should be extra careful as taught by the American Cancer Society.
Another question that comes up shy, after all I’ve bee through; I’m not angry or depressed. My answer is: if the doctors give you every chance to live a normal life, well, why not does it? They’ve always been honest with me. They’ve said frankly in the past that they don’t know when or if another form of cancer, of another metastasis, will show up. But I can’t see sitting around the moping.
I’ve lived a full, happy life through three major cancer operations. I’ve watched my daughters grow up and seen three grandsons born since the first tumor. And I’ve not been living in fear. On the contrary, I’m more fearful about getting abroad an airplane than I am about undergoing anesthesia. Hod and I have had a good life together; I feel we’ve had a present of 16 marvelous years—more than some have in their entire lives. As for the future—nobly knows that except God. And I have faith in Him, just as I have always had.