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How My Long-Ago High School Classmates Helped Me Through Cancer

Some of them had cancer once; others, several times.

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illustration of woman sitting down with other females reaching out to her
Paige Vickers
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When I was diagnosed with gynecological cancer at the age of 72, I didn’t keep my news a secret. I told friends, colleagues and family, hoping to hear about their experiences with the disease rather than poring through studies and statistics. It was while listening to their personal accounts that I thought of another invaluable resource: my high school classmates. 

I am class of 1965 from what was then an all-girls public exam school in New York City. For six years, from the ages of 11 to 17, I had up to 186 classmates. Those years were formative and created ties as strong, if not stronger, than college ties. Some of us have remained intimate friends. At least six have died. A few have quietly detached themselves from our circle. But the majority attend reunions and remain in sporadic touch on social media. I decided to share my bad news on our 150-strong class email list.

Like 64-year-old Christiane Amanpour, who broadcast her diagnosis of ovarian cancer on her CNN show, and tennis star Chris Evert, who announced the end of her chemotherapy on Twitter, I wanted to sound the alarm about the rise in gyn cancer. I’m a journalist who often writes out of personal acquaintance with a subject.

My first book broke a taboo by making public the transmission of intergenerational trauma in families of genocide survivors, like my own family. Though breast cancer has become an acceptable part of public conversation, gyn cancer has lagged far behind. I posted that there was probably never a good time to get a cancer diagnosis, but that June 2020, when the first wave of COVID-19 was surging in Massachusetts, had to be one of the worst.

Spouses and significant others were barred from entering medical facilities; I would be going into months of exams, consults and treatment — surgery, chemo and radiation — alone. I wanted to hear how my classmates had coped with cancer. Some posted to the group; others just to me. About 40 of my classmates responded. Some were currently in treatment; some had been caretakers. It had started for some when they were in their 30s, others in their 60s. Their posts were reassuring, an enormous comfort to me, particularly during the first year of COVID-19, when my social life was very limited. 

A few of my correspondents were people whose faces and voices I remembered vividly; others were barely more than names. I remembered Linnea, in blue bloomers, from gym. Tall and athletic like me, Linnea and I guarded each other in basketball. A lawyer now, she was diagnosed with stage 4 non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma two years ago.

She wrote: “My heart sounded like a washing machine. I had lost 10 pounds. I had night sweats. My blood test results were a mess; I only had half my red blood cells. The science behind lymphoma cures is exploding, so my doctor is optimistic that any reoccurrence can be managed. I live each day happy that all fell into place for me medically. Very little unglues me now. Worrying is a waste of time. I learned to reach out to others for support. Many friends and colleagues appeared to support me. That was the silver lining to my ordeal.” 

Next came an email from Leah, so cool behind her dark glasses that I rarely dared speak to her. Now a psychotherapist. Leah, like so many other women I knew, had breast cancer. 

“You didn’t want advice, so feel free to delete,” she started out. “My feelings will not be hurt. I had breast cancer, tumor larger than yours but no metastasis, and like you grade 3.

“Had surgery, radiation and chemo. The chemo was different, but most of them are a ‘bomb the whole village to get the terrorists’ kind of thing. I did start after a while to feel very poisoned. I continued going to work, but about midway everything began to wear me out …” 

Some of my classmates had cancer once; others, several times. They discussed physical losses — the hair on their head, around their eyes, armpits, legs and pubis — and their loss of interest in food and sex, overwhelming fatigue, as well as fear of pain, death and recurrence. I had barely talked with Audrey in high school; she was a math and science type and is now an emergency room doctor in Southern California. Now, she became my cheerleader. 

“From a physician’s point of view, your posts highlight everything we don’t know and don’t think to ask about serious illnesses,” wrote Audrey. “The patient walks out the door, and the next problem enters. We don’t see the minute-to-minute reality of how it all plays out. And cancer is always something that happens to the other guy, not us. And no one foresees all the combinations of events that can befall them — regimens, procedures, timing, side effects. I think you ought to write a memoir or a book entitled A Lucky Woman With Cancer. Reading everyone’s response, each of us has our own story, but you have opened all of our eyes.”

The posts from people I knew more than 50 years ago made me smile and sometimes laugh out loud. They brought back the fun of doing things together and accompanied me through my treatment. My classmates were smart, funny, generous and upbeat, and their words brought with them a welcome rush of adolescent energy. Their comments and caring inspired me to write my recently published book, Getting Through It: My Year of Cancer During Covid. 

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