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What I Learned from Breast Cancer


Inga became a sort of muse to me. I imagined her to be a gardener of root vegetables — beets and carrots and rutabaga, goodness planted so deep it would stoically endure the harsh Iowa winters, so deep her hardy hands would be thick with soil when digging in spring. I imagined her loving her solitude and her family in equal measures. I imagined her in prayer. She could have been a nun.

It was in the spring of 2005, when I was climbing out of the depths of another round of chemotherapy, that I heard Inga was sick. Inga, cancer's caretaker, was stricken with cancer — a rare cancer of the tongue with a poor prognosis. I wrote to her that day. Inga, how could it be? But Inga's disease was fast and vicious. I never heard back. She soon lost the ability to speak, then to eat, and within a year she lost her beautiful life.

This past autumn, the nurses and doctors in the cancer center dedicated a painting of a nurse to hang in the chemo suite in Inga's honor. They invited me to attend the ceremony and to read the letter I'd written in praise of Inga that had been published in the local newspaper. The event was held in a back room of the cancer center, a room I'd passed a hundred times when it was buzzing with physicians in white coats and pictures of luminous bones on light boxes. This day, it was laid out with cheese and crackers and a lime green sherbet punch that looked a little too much like a chemo agent for my taste.

I was the only patient in the room among a sea of faces who had saved my life over and over during the last 13 years. But one face in that room stood out. And it stood out at the chin. Inga's daughter, Susan, was at the far end of the room, standing between her father and her brother. They were both leaning on her, heads inclined toward that deep narrow chin, like an icicle with the tip snapped off. The daughter is a replica of the mother, I thought to myself, her complexion as soft, her strength as apparent, her movement as graceful. And before I even realized what I was doing, my eyes sought — and found — in Susan's boots and her bag and her jewelry a series of elongated misshapen triangles.

I read my letter about Inga, about how her dignity made an unforgettable difference in the life of a patient. Reading the words, I worked really hard to hold back my tears so that everything wouldn't become a blur. I couldn't stand to miss a moment of watching Inga's unparalleled brand of comfort still, apparently, so hard at work.

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