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Excerpt: "I Was the One with Cancer"

Alice Hoffman is a best-selling author of novels, short-story collections and books for children and young adults. Her advance from Survival Lessons (Algonquin Books) will be donated to the Hoffman Breast Center at Mount Auburn Hospital in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
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Alice Hoffman Book Excerpt
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Illustrations by Brian Cronin

When I found the lump I was convinced I had imagined it. These things didn't happen to me. True, bad things happened around me. My mother was undergoing treatment for breast cancer. My sister-in-law had just lost her battle with brain cancer. Several relatives and friends were seriously ill. But, still, these things didn't happen to me. I was not someone who got cancer. In fact, I was the person who sat by bedsides, accompanied friends to doctor's appointments, researched family members' diseases until I became an expert, went to meetings with lawyers when divorce was the only option, found therapists for depressed teenagers, bought plots at cemeteries, arranged funerals, babysat children and pets.

But as it turned out, I was also the one with cancer.

I did my best to pretend it wasn't so. I was busy after all—the mother of two young sons, caring for my ill mother, involved in my writing. I didn't have time to be ill. Now I know you can't run away by ignoring the truth. Truth follows you; it comes in through open windows and drifts under doors. I went for a biopsy, convinced I was fine. Days later my doctor phoned me and said, Alice, I'm sorry. Then I knew. Good fortune and bad luck are always tied together with invisible, unbreakable thread. It happens to everyone, in one way or another, sooner or later. The loss of a loved one, a divorce, heartbreak, a child set on the wrong path, a bad diagnosis. When it comes to sorrow, no one is immune.

I kept my illness a secret, sharing my diagnosis with only my closest friends and family. I'm still not sure why I did this, but it seems to me now it was a survival technique. For other people, telling everyone may work. I needed to process my issues on my own.

It's a good idea to sit down with your children and tell them what they mean to you. The saddest girl I ever knew wasn't told that her mother had cancer. Her mother just disappeared one day and came back different, and after that my friend was different, too. Every year some part of her disappeared. She stopped confiding in me. She didn't laugh the way she used to. After a while she wasn't my friend anymore.

Explain that because you are ill or sad you may be grumpy, sleepy, dopey, and all the other things the dwarves in Snow White are. Assure your children you will still be available to watch mindless TV shows, eat M&M's, and lose at board games. If you feel up to it, take them on a trip to an amusement park or a beach or a museum. Sometimes children forget trips such as these, but these outings may make an indelible impression, and perhaps more important, you will always remember. When people ask about your terrible year, the first thing that will come to mind is the grin on your son's face on the roller coaster and how fast your daughter ran on the beach. She was almost flying. She was the most beautiful thing on earth.

It took all this time for me to figure out what I would have most wanted to hear when I was newly diagnosed, when I lost the people I loved, when I was deeply disappointed in myself and the turns my life had taken. There were many times when I forgot about roses and starry nights. I forgot that our lives are made up of equal parts sorrow and joy, and that it is impossible to have one without the other. This is what makes us human. This is why our world is so precious. In the darkest hour the roses still bloom, the stars still come out at night.

Fifteen years after being diagnosed with cancer, I've become something I never imagined I'd be. I'm a survivor.

Originally published in the October 2013 issue of Family Circle magazine.