Starting Point
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Issue Date:  September 29, 2006

Starting Point


I had been expecting some sign since June. Crippling headaches, missteps in perception, sentences in need of nouns. That 55th birthday meant I had arrived at the same age my mother was when she began her long and courageous dance with Alzheimer’s disease. But I felt better than fine; I was a social worker by day and spent every other bit of time writing or teaching poetry in English and Irish Gaelic. The latter language seemed a sure-fire way to rewire my brain and stave off any early onset of the disease. In fact, I had just returned home from a poetry festival in Ireland when I went for my first colonoscopy.

“Make sure you get that ultrasound,” the doctor reminded me as he delivered a clean bill of health for my colon and a reminder to return in five years. In the pretest, he noticed a mass on my right side, which I assumed to be fibroids and had summarily dismissed. Within two hours of the ultrasound, his office was on the phone arranging an appointment. After a CT scan and blood tests, I was told it was third-stage ovarian cancer. For days I heard the words echo, “It’s a tough cancer.”

By week’s end, my work calendar was cleared; files complete. My e-mail box at home was full of tender expressions of friendship and advice born of their own hard-won episodes of adversity. My closest friends, cancer survivors among them, pledged they would be with me at each step on this new journey. I grabbed on and let go: the fears, the unknowing, and the anticipation of the inevitable pain. Hope took hold instead.

Three weeks later I was home, dazed, still sore, but very grateful. The tumor was found to be “borderline,” neither truly benign nor malignant. I will need neither chemotherapy nor radiation, but careful monitoring over the next five years.

A feeling of resurrection and new life surrounded me. My friends and I had a thanksgiving dinner with all the trimmings: blessings, laughter and great stories about the women who are the strong threads of our personal and collective histories. Afterward, I returned home, memories of my mother warm in the cold air.

Sr. Deborah L. Humphreys is a member of the Sisters of Charity of St. Elizabeth and is a bilingual social worker and poet in Newark, N.J.

National Catholic Reporter, September 29, 2006

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