Eileen Dreyer


When Tina asked me to share some stories of courage about people who were facing cancer, she said that I’d probably have more stories because I’m a nurse and worked in hospitals for a couple of decades. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that my stories come not from work, but from friends and family. Of course, I spent my entire career in either the lab or the Emergency Department, so I never had the chance to really interact with my patients enough to know their backgrounds, their dreams, their family dynamics. But since I’m still a nurse (I figure I won’t be a nurse anymore when people stop calling me for medical advice), I tend to get phone calls with questions or concerns or triumphs.


My first real memory of cancer was a hard one. I was five when my mom’s older sister found a lump in her breast. That was 1957, and even though she had a mastectomy, it seemed that we always knew that she wouldn’t survive. Most women didn’t back then. Since my mom was also a nurse, we stayed over there to care for her, and I remember her grace and smiles and silent strength that hot, wearing summer as she battled what we called the monster.

The reason I bring her up is because it has recently dawned on me that if she’d lived now, she would have been one of the women who who wore pink at a Komen run, encouraging other women who faced what she had. She would have hd all the help, support and medical advances to battle through and been a wonderful example for how to face the monster, just as so many of my friends have been, not only who are surviving breast cancer, but other cancers.

And here’s what I love about my friends. Back in the 1950’s, when I first made cancer’s acquaintance, they called people who’d been diagnosed ‘victims.’ And really, people acted like it. They succumbed; sure, they had lost the right to survive because they were caught in cancer’s trap with no way out.

Not so now. Now, the reaction I get much more frequently is that cancer is a coward hiding in the dark, and our job is to meet it face-to-face, to destroy it if possible, and if not, to at least know we had met it as an equal adversary, not as a victim. I can think of many examples, but I’ll share two. The first is one of my editors. She discovered her cancer on a mammogram. She went through a lumpectomy and chemo, and then had to do it again. Her reaction? Right over the scar from the surgery, she tattooed the Chinese symbol of life, not just as a promise to herself, but as a condemnation of cancer.

The other friend didn’t have breast cancer. What she did have demanded round after round of experimental chemotherapy and radiation therapy that produced symptoms that kept her off her feet, in her house, and too ill to even enjoy visits from friends, for week after week. So what she’s done instead is start a Facebook page just to discuss hers and other cancers. She’s shared the downside, of course, but also her indomitable will to live. She’s hand-painted cards to her friends. And she has written an on-going illustrated blog of her experiences for other warriors that I hope to help her publish, because it’s that good.

Cancer is a monster, and it is a coward. I’ve been so privileged to know so many people who refused to let it win without fighting back.

Tina DeSalvo1 Comment