How a touch of denial helped me kick cancer's ass
It was October of 1996 when I was diagnosed with Stage III(b) lobular carcinoma of the left breast. Strangely enough, the first thought to run through my head was “How convenient. It’s Breast Cancer Awareness Month!” My second thought was “Is this how it ends?”
For those who don’t know and who hopefully won’t ever have to learn, lobular carcinoma isn’t like “ordinary” breast carcinoma. The lobular type is a lot harder to detect. It spreads rapidly. And it kills randomly. Really, really kills.
It’s so hard to detect that the hospital I went to in San Francisco didn’t even bother to try. That dark shadow on the mammogram? Nope, nothing to worry about. Until a lump developed, and then suddenly it was worth the hospital worrying enough to pursue further. I wasn’t as pissed as I was glad that finally, someone else was just as concerned and freaked out as I’d been all along.
The day that I was given my diagnosis, I asked my brother Tim to come to the hospital with me. I needed an extra set of ears. I simply couldn’t trust my own to not shut down in the middle of it all. They’d already done so halfway through the phone call from my doctor, just sort of toggled over into “in one ear and out the other” mode, and I knew that if I wanted to stand any chance at all of fighting this thing I was going to have to pay close attention. I also just needed his support. And so he came. He’s my brother, after all.
I was glad to have him there. The minute the doctor told me to “get my affairs in order” and that I had a one-in-10 chance of survival, my mind went numb. But even harder than accepting this reality was the fact that I’d gotten Chris’s hopes up for landing a successful parole based on how well the outcome had been for Daulton, who was set to be released in just a few months’ time. I wanted to be there on that day for Daulton, just as I wanted to be there to see Chris experience his own freedom. But now, honestly, I didn’t know if there was going to be any future at all.
I waited to tell Chris about my diagnosis. I talked to him twice, never mentioning it to him, until eventually I was unable to avoid it. My surgery was scheduled, and there was no way around telling him everything. While I was doing my best to maintain a positive attitude, Chris wasn’t having such an easy time of it.
Several weeks later, surgery revealed two tumors – both of which were so large that it necessitated a radical mastectomy along with removal of part of the muscle wall. I experienced a loss of sensation in my left arm, along with massive swelling and pain. But more than that, I also felt a sudden loss of precious time. Time that I could otherwise be spending preparing a parole brief for Chris. The agony of guilt became far more than the physical pain.
A month after surgery, I had recovered enough that I was able to write Chris’s parole brief. Racked with sickness from the cancer drugs, I was informed that United States Parole Commission had said no to Chris’s release. Now what? I had 30 days to file an appeal on his behalf, but in order have the strength to do so, I’d have to make the difficult decision to postpone further treatments.
“We can do this appeal another time,” Chris told me. “I have another hearing in two years. It can wait until then. You need to do what the doctor wants you to do.” We were two selfless people at odds – each one trying to convince the other that our own immediate needs should be put on hold for the benefit of the other.
Finally, I made a list. I weighed the pros and cons of my necessary cancer treatment against what I had committed to do for Chris. If I was successful with his appeal, he would find freedom after more than 20 years in prison.
My decision to put my treatment on hold against the protestations of Chris and my oncologist was two-fold. For one, my ego simply wouldn’t allow me to shuck my duties. I also knew that if I gave in to my predicament, I would die. Plain and simple. I knew this just as surely as I knew I could succeed at helping Chris regain his freedom. And so my decision was made. I would allow ego and distraction to save my life.
I wrote the appeal and submitted it. My duty finished, I then submitted to chemotherapy and radiation. Days passed. Then months. Finally, we heard back from the parole commission: we had won. Chris’s parole date was set for September of 2002.
On October 19, 2002, I celebrated six years of living with cancer and I married Christopher Boyce in the midst of the redwood trees in Occidental, California. He had been there every step of the way, through treatments, sickness, surgery, bone marrow transplant, and drugs. He had filled my mailbox with cards and letters until finally, he came home. Through it all, Chris had been my biggest cheerleader, even during times when I’d stopped cheering for myself.
In front of friends and family and with a new last name, I felt like I’d been given a fresh lease on life. Nothing would ever stand in my way. And while I would like to say that we lived happily ever after, that “ever after” was not without grief.
May of 2004 brought a recurrence of the same cancer, and it was back with a vengeance. With Chris’s support, I fought hard and well. In October 2006, another lump and cancer again. Injections and radiation every morning. Sickness and pain. I dyed my hair blue and filled my pockets with Tootsie Rolls to pass out to children going through the same radiation treatment.
Finally, in May of 2012, I heard my doctor speak a word that absolutely floored me: “Remission.” Complete remission. No more drugs. No more treatments. Sixteen years and 21 surgeries later, I had finally made it to the top of that mountain.
Looking back on it all, I believe that having the opportunity to focus on something other than my cancer was what truly saved me. Putting Chris’s needs ahead of my own and refusing to wallow in self-pity turned out to be the medicine that I needed. Turns out, a touch of denial – when combined with following doctor’s orders – can do a body good. I’m living proof. Emphasis on the word living.
Cait Boyce is married to Christopher Boyce, known to many as “The Falcon” from the book and movie The Falcon and the Snowman. Their book, American Sons: The Untold Story of the Falcon and the Snowman, tells of Chris’s experiences in prison and his 25-year journey to freedom. The book also details Cait’s successful two-decade quest to seek parole for Chris and his childhood friend, Andrew Daulton Lee. The 2017 expanded edition of American Sons: The Untold Story of the Falcon and the Snowman is available now from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, IndieBound, and other online booksellers.