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Cheryl Truman: Cancer is a sudden new chapter of my life

The thing about cancer is that it focuses you. Slights you thought you cared about, side battles you thought you'd fight, grudges you'd never admit you were nursing — they all fall away, withered and blackened, within moments after you first hear the words.

I have breast cancer. And now all I think about is my 18-year-old daughter and 20-year-old son. I am their only parent. I want to see them graduate. I want to be at their weddings. I want to be around to see my grandchildren.

And really, that's all I want.

This is a roundabout way of telling you I'll be gone for a while. I'm having a double mastectomy on Monday, with the beginnings of reconstructive surgery. The reconstructive part of the equation depends on how my lymph nodes look. If they're clear, I'm good; if they're not, my troubles might be bigger, and more medically complicated, than whether those saline implants get planted.

I would like to say I took the news well that I had invasive breast cancer. I did not. I cried as if tear ducts were on sale at Wal-Mart.

And for days afterward, I had to restrain myself from grabbing every woman I met and insisting that she get an immediate mammogram.

There are books on my desk stacked to take with me during my leave of absence: Wendell Berry's environmental parable Whitefoot: A Story From the Center of the World, which has just been published; a galley of Jim Tomlinson's new collection of stories, Nothing Like an Ocean, which will go on sale in March. D. Kay Clawson, president of the Henry Clay Memorial Foundation, recently sent me Madeline L'Engle's A Season of Quiet, and it's on the top of the bedside book stack.

I also plan to plow my way through Anthony Trollope, whom one of my readers recommended back in the fall when I was having a reading slump. Trollope has been a godsend, and now I understand why Trollope's sales spike during hard times, both economic and medical. Even though Trollope could benefit from a short, sharp slap of feminism, there is something marvelously comforting about his writing. Trollope's world has a structure, actions make sense, people talk sensibly, and those who are kind and just when nobody's looking eventually wind up with something like grace. Trollope admits that most people are neither all good nor all evil. We have mixed motivations. We're good, we're evil, we walk into tricky situations over trivialities, we get sick, we try harder.

Trollope is a crisp writer for confusing times. He'll be a fine companion for those days when I can't lift my arms.

In 2007, I wrote about Kentucky writer David Dick, who has lived for years with prostate cancer. In his book, A Journal for Lalie: Living Through Prostate Cancer, he wrote: "I feel good, ready to go on living one more day as fully, as richly as I know how."

I understood that sentence on an intellectual level back then, but now I feel it right down to my bones.

Former Herald-Leader editor Marilyn Thompson, herself a breast cancer survivor, told me the hardest part of recovery is letting people help you. Me, I don't know how to stop slinging around the vacuum. I would live on saltines and Diet Pepsi for weeks rather than let anyone think I need a home-baked casserole. Letting others do for me, it's a humbling thought.

After the initial shock of the diagnosis, when all you can think of is being a very pure person and what people might say about you at the funeral, I found that it was OK to be myself again.

There's a probably apocryphal story about how Bette Davis trashed Joan Crawford after Crawford shuffled off this mortal coil. Called out for speaking ill of the departed, Davis is said to have replied, "Just because she's dead doesn't mean that she's changed."

So although I've had a shock, and some priorities are forever altered, it's not as if I've had a personality transplant. I hope to soon be well enough to complain in an entertaining and incendiary manner.

There's one other liberating thing about cancer: You can give up pretending that you're smarter than you are.

My house backs up to a horse farm. The day after my cancer diagnosis, I was sitting on the sofa, gazing out the window and really not doing squat, when suddenly a cluster of horses came flying along the back fence. All I could think was that it was so sweet. I'm sure there are better words, more sophisticated words, but at that moment I didn't need them. It was sweet. And I was grateful to be there.

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