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What I Learned from Breast Cancer


WebMD Feature from "Redbook" Magazine

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One writer reveals what it's really like to live with the disease day-to-day — and honors the woman who helped her through the darkest moments.

Last October, REDBOOK asked readers to send in their stories of how breast cancer had touched their lives — whether they themselves had the disease or had witnessed a loved one facing it down. The entries we received were poignant and powerful, making it difficult to select the grand-prize winner. Its author, Lauren Reece Flaum, 48, was diagnosed with breast cancer nearly 13 years ago. Since then, she has had a mastectomy, been in and out of chemotherapy, and been on and off the drug Herceptin; Flaum's cancer would disappear for a while, but inevitably it would return, after shorter and shorter intervals. "I used to be disease-free for years at a time," says the Iowa City, IA, mom. "Now we can't get it to go away."

Flaum's essay also appears in the new anthology A Cup of Comfort for Breast Cancer Survivors. She received a $5,000 prize from the book's publisher, Adams Media, which donated an additional $5,000 in her name to Susan G. Komen for the Cure. When she found out she'd won the grand prize for her bittersweet ode to her chemo nurse, Inga, "my heart skipped a beat!" Flaum says. "It was such an overwhelming feeling to have made it through to the end." Her proud clan — her husband of 22 years, Michael, 54; her daughter, Georgia, 19; and her son, Chester, 16 — immediately took her to dinner to celebrate. Just as gratifying to Flaum, though, was the reaction from Inga's family. "They were so delighted and moved," she says. "They felt like I got her completely, which is the best reward." Read on for Flaum's moving essay.

Lauren Reece Flaum and her family.I played a little game with Inga's face — well, her chin mostly, her deep, plunging chin that reminded me of an icicle with its tip snapped off. I'd never seen another chin like it; it was more a caricature than a real feature. And I had nothing but time to study it, watching her enter and exit my room, sometimes with a Styrofoam cup of chicken noodle soup, sometimes with a printout of the day's blood counts, all too often with thick plastic bags of toxic fluids targeting my tired veins. I'd seek out that odd triangular shape, and in recognizing it know that, somehow, Inga would yet again get me through the difficult day ahe

My little game involved finding this same slightly askew triangle in the patterns that adorned Inga's clothing, in the vee of her nursing smock, in the turquoise stones of her bracelet, in the spaces created on her feet by the crisscrosses of her sturdy shoes. I don't know if she knew she had a triangular theme going, or if it was some deep unconscious reiteration of what she saw when she looked in the mirror each morning getting ready for her hard day's work as head nurse in the chemotherapy suite. For me, scrutinizing Inga and her chin and her crazy triangular patterning became a ritual. The triangles kept recurring — in her cheekbones and her barrettes and the creases of her eyelids — and finding them never failed to bring me a surprising measure of comfort.

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