At the 2004 Democratic National Convention, John Edwards famously declared, 'Hope is on the way.' Sadly, America wasn't ready to swap ongoing misery for his aspiration; however, his words turned out to be prophetic in a way I'm guessing he never intended. I listened with a heavy heart to the announcement of the recurrence of his wife's breast cancer, which likely will kill her sooner rather than later. But after reading subsequent interviews, it's my opinion that potential First Lady Elizabeth Edwards embodies the hope her husband offered. The timing of her news has had a particular resonance for me since next week I am having surgery to remove a mass from my right breast.
I first felt the Good & Plenty-shaped lump while lying in bed one night a year ago, and I dismissed it as quickly as I dismiss parenting advice from the screaming authoritarian who lives next door. I figured I was clocking time as the household hypochondriac, a job function generally assigned to my husband, and, I rationalized, my period was about to start, anyway. Remaining calm, I quietly placed the matter in a special compartment in my head, an exclusive space less susceptible-though not immune-to my predisposition for unrestricted worry. Still, I made a concerned-disguised-as-indifferent pass over my breast every now and again to convince myself that I had indeed invented this apparition. But there it was each time, determined and obstinate, waiting for the pressure of my fingertips.
Three months later, I beat my denial into submission and capitulated to my first mammogram, followed by an ultrasound, both of which confirmed that I had neither conjured up this foreign invader nor was it a hormonal hiccough. A biopsy later revealed a benign mass and I virtually levitated with relief when my doctor called with the good news, though it came bearing a stark asterisk to follow up in six months. That was in February.
After this second ultrasound, Dr. Biopsy shuffled into the room to inform me that my mass was growing and he wasn't quite as confident about the previous diagnosis. He placed an even, age-spotted hand on my knee and called me 'kiddo' while we talked. It's never good news when your doctor puts a hand on your knee and calls you 'kiddo.'
He gently explained his rationale for ordering another biopsy versus a lumpectomy. Because the former was a startlingly brutal procedure that left me severely bruised for more than a month, and because I saw in my future an invasive cycle divided neatly into six-month intervals, I looked into his eyes and aimed the question I consider my mortal weapon directly toward his human gene: 'If I were your daughter, what would you tell me to do?' He sighed, thought on it for at least three of my nervous heartbeats and said without resignation, 'If you were my daughter, I'd tell you to get it out of there.'
To be clear and to head off any letters accusing me of being a fraud, I do not claim to be an expert in this arena; I know only my individual experience. I know I'm very lucky since there is only a 10-percent chance my cyst is cancerous. I realize my diagnosis could be far worse and that there are women every day who receive life-altering results, the impact of which I can only begin to fathom.
Nevertheless, this entire process-from the first time my fingers made contact with the interloper to the first time the surgeon's did-has forced me to imagine that woman's fate. It propelled me to consider some terrifying possibilities, internalizing what-ifs and hypotheticals. Things like this happen to other people, but when 'other people' happens to be me, the fragility of life and the impermanence of seemingly permanent things are all at once blinding.
In the name of self-preservation, I've tried to prevent mental meandering down Worst-Case Scenario Boulevard. Instead, I've been fretting over the possible disfigurement and likely scarring of my breast, which is mine and which I love and which is perfect exactly the way it is. These are superficial concerns, but they're also real and surmountable in comparison with the alternative. I admit I've failed to meet this personal challenge with the elegance I would have liked. But then comes Elizabeth Edwards with her devastating news, which could so easily be mine with a different slant of luck, and suddenly her soaring attitude is helping to shift my self-pitying one.
Of course people are accusing her of politicizing her disease. I've overheard discussions of how she and her husband can't possibly continue with a presidential campaign, that they have no idea how difficult it will be once she begins treatment or how selfish they are to divert precious attention from their children. Who's to say? These are personal decisions, and it seems to me unproductive-if not the antithesis to healing-to gather the fam around the fireplace and wait politely for death. Her news and her disposition have me convinced I'm doing the right thing for my health and have inspired me to move toward grace and dignity, qualities she exemplifies. I'm convinced, too, that Elizabeth Edwards is first-lady material like we haven't seen in a very long time.
I believe Elizabeth Edwards is transcending politics. She is living authentically, and a side effect of that self-trueness is a public roadmap for how to unflinchingly confront difficult issues. Her struggle with a terminal illness may serve to raise out of whispers the conversations we have about cancer and mortality, a generous gift and much needed contribution to our culture.
What moves me most about Edwards is the courage she exhibits and with which she is determined to keep stepping forward. I'm tempted to call her a hero, but I doubt that's how she would wish to be defined; my hunch is that she considers herself a woman not unlike any other, a woman doing the best she can with the circumstances before her. She just happens to be a public figure sharing what would otherwise be a private experience. She's lunging to slay her demon before the calloused and scrutinizing gaze of a public achingly desperate for a little bit of hope.
Hope isn't on the way.
Hope has revealed herself.
Write to aaryn@SDcitybeat.com and editor@SDcitybeat.com.