But when I get a diagnosis of cancer, it changes. It isn’t just that I am numb from the news and the surgery. It isn’t even that I need to be alone to sort this stuff out. I have spent a lifetime sorting things out with my friends. But now, I feel, I am under serious attack, and when the Scud missiles are raining on your head, you don’t have time to get on the phone with your girlfriends and say you are terribly depressed. Also, there is something else—I am afraid of negativity. Cancer is a scary word; people hear it and think “death,” and I don’t want that sort of energy around me. I also don’t want to hear, however well-meaning, other people’s stories. Until now, I thought breast cancer was breast cancer. I had no idea there were different kinds, some more dangerous than others. I also realize that everyone’s body is different. I love my friends, I want their support, but hearing a story about a friend of a friend who “had it” and is now doing fine will be a waste of my time—what I need is hard facts about medullary and information about the options. I’ll tell some close friends the diagnosis, but they have to keep it to themselves. Just on a professional level, I don’t want this around. Journalists are the biggest gossips in the world and the least reliable—one lunch at Orso, and three hours later word will be all over town that Wadler is dying, and I’ll never get another book. I’m also making a rule: Information goes out, but unless I ask, it doesn’t come in. Herb and I also ask friends to let me call them. If they want to know the details of what’s happening medically, they can call Herb for briefings. Herb calls them Breast Conferences.
Wednesday, the day after the surgery, I get organized. I have an advantage: I am a reporter, and so are a lot of my friends. I call up two or three and give them a task: Herb looks for Dr. Love’s book and checks on Luke’s credentials (they’re excellent); Heidi, a magazine editor I have known for twenty years, will call the American Cancer Society and the National Institutes of Health; Max, who is the bureau chief for an out-of-town paper, will call his contacts; we’ll all get names for second opinions. There is no way, with a life-threatening disease, I am not getting a second opinion. The reference I trust most comes from an old friend who is a doctor and researcher. “You’ll go to Jeanne Petrek at Sloan-Kettering for the surgery, Norton as the oncologist. He’s the head of the breast-cancer department at Sloan, very sharp. He’s a friend, our wives are friends. Make the call and tell him I sent you. No, wait, I’ll make the call myself.”
I’ve got other problems, too: my job and my book. My publisher has paid a bundle for this story—“Let’s face it, now they own you,” Ma had said when I signed the contract, and I have no idea how long this breast business is going to hang me up. I have the same concern about People. Neither is a problem. The publisher tells me to concentrate on my health. People editor Lanny Jones changes my unpaid literary leave to a medical leave—on full pay—and says the resources of the company are behind me. Within days, I’ve got four people from Medical calling me with the names of cancer support groups and specialists. It’s a relief. But I wonder, What happens to poor women in New York who don’t have medical insurance, and don’t have families that can help them, and don’t have friends to get them to the head of the department at Sloan-Kettering?
But I have another ongoing problem closer to home: Ma. They have an interesting way of dealing with illness in my family. They form little whispering cabals, deciding who can “take it.” Or, if they must deliver bad news, they hit you in a roundabout way. “You know your uncle Murray, in the hospital in Kingston, he’s not doing very well,” my aunt Shirley had told me, in a phone conversation years ago. Then she asked to speak to my boyfriend. A few minutes later, he passed back the phone. “Actually,” said Shirley, “he’s dead.”
I never understood this, but now I do: You don’t tell the people you love, because you want to protect them. But in doing that, you cut yourself off. I talk to Nick about it. He says mothers are stronger than you think, and anyway, I owe my family the full story. The day after the biopsy, I call her.