Diagnosed with breast cancer at age 45, Joanna Chapman stumbled and bumbled through Cancerland on a journey rife with both tears and unexpected laughter. In Divine Secrets of the Ta-Ta Sisterhood, she reveals why you should accept those foil-covered casseroles and when to give out “Stupid Passes” for well-meaning but clueless comments.
We’ll be giving away an autographed copy on December 7, 2013! Till then, enjoy this excerpt.
Prologue: Extradited to Cancerland
Welcome to the Ta-Ta Sisterhood
Maybe you, or someone you love, just became a member of the “pink sorority” nobody wants to join. Perhaps you noticed a lump while showering or were called back after your mammogram. Maybe you have a strong family history of cancer and have been dreading the day you too might be diagnosed. Statistics say one out of every eight women will face breast cancer in her lifetime. Even if you never wrestle with the beast yourself, chances are someone you know and love will.
Regardless of circumstances, you are now a pledge of the Ta-Ta Sisterhood. Take my hand and I’ll be your big sister, guiding you through the initiation rites of treating and healing. Frankly, I’d rather have joined a sorority known for great keg parties. Let me turn the hospital sheet into a toga and spend my time in candlelit ceremonies, repeating obscure Latin mottoes. If I’m going to throw up, let it be caused by too much “trashcan punch” instead of chemo drugs.
But it is what it is: I’m a five-year survivor of breast cancer. Stick with me and I’ll tell you the truth not everyone else will. Like, it’s okay to hate all the Pepto-Bismol-pink knick-knacks. That treatment decisions can be perplexing. That your friends and family will need a “Stupid Pass” for their well-meaning but clueless comments.
I get annoyed with Pollyanna-ish survivors who say their cancer was a gift. If it’s a gift, it’s a tacky, passive-aggressive one, like Depends and Dentu-Crème wrapped up in sparkly black paper for a milestone birthday. I didn’t need cancer to teach me a life lesson. Even so, the experience wasn’t completely negative. Important relationships grew stronger. I stumbled over things to laugh about in the most unexpected places, my wacky and irreverent perspective carrying me through the toughest times.
While undergoing treatment, I’d get frustrated when I read a book or watched a movie with a surprising cancer plot twist. Never mind that Julia Roberts or Winona Ryder or whoever always looked lovely in their last moments, with suspiciously dewy complexions. Let me assure you that my story—blending elements of horror, suspense, and romance—has a happy ending, eventually.
I once was a fairly private person, but cancer has knocked down my emotional barriers. Maybe someday I’ll be mortified about over-sharing, but if the disclosure of my breast cancer journey—and the unexpected secrets I’ve learned—can help another pink sorority gal, then it will be worthwhile. Therefore, I humbly offer you my story as a cosmic casserole, a cheesy comfort food, served up to you, my Ta-Ta Sisters, with honesty and humor, hoping it will make you laugh, cry, smile, and feel less alone.
I know we’ve been burned by unreliable memoirs in the past, so I promise to tell it to you straight, offered up raw and close to the bone, not deep-Frey-ed or sugar-sprinkled. But my mind is no steel trap; it’s more like a stretchable aluminum Slinky. I probably won’t get every detail right—maybe I was drinking a margarita rather than a piña colada when I had my epiphany about life’s meaning on the top deck of a cruise ship. As a work of creative narrative nonfiction, the book’s plot twists and turns are factual, though viewed through a subjective lens. At times my memory may be more impressionistic smudge than high-definition digital photo. But unlike the author who told readers he’d undergone a root canal without pain killers or anesthesia, I won’t claim to have performed my own mastectomy with a bottle of tequila and a Swiss Army knife.
If you are looking to me for medical advice, then you probably think Captain Kangaroo and Colonel Sanders work at the Pentagon. Big mistake! Consult your own physician for treatment recommendations. Also, while I’ve included the names of websites, books, small businesses, and nonprofits that I (or trusted friends) have found helpful, your mileage may vary.
As my Rock Star Surgeon likes to say, “You don’t deal the cards—all you can do is play the hand you’re dealt.” Only a few years ago, I found myself at a high-stakes table, playing for my life. Take a seat, Ta-Ta Sisters, and I’ll share a few of my trusty card tricks. Game on.
Trouble in Paradise
I lean back in the lounge chair, frozen strawberry daiquiri in hand. The ocean breeze at Hilton Head is refreshing, and I can hear the soothing sounds of the waves. Yet I’m anything but relaxed and content. Behind my dark sunglasses, I’m staring at other women’s breasts more intently than a hormone-addled teenage boy.
I have breast cancer. Everything is different now.
Cancer can be one sneaky S.O.B. It’s freaky how it can creep up on you without warning. There I was, a 45-year-old multitasking mom, feeling great, no worries…while underneath it all, malignant cells were stealthily multiplying. There was no lump, no pain, no outward sign to warn me that my life would change forever. If I hadn’t gone for the annual routine mammogram—a few months overdue—the cancer would have continued to spread its tentacles, silent and menacing, for who knows how long.
Here I sit at this lovely beach resort, for what was supposed to be a relaxed, romantic, anniversary trip. Instead, I’m tormented by anxious thoughts and tense muscles while questions multiply in my mind. I have a confirmed diagnosis of breast cancer and do not yet know my recommended treatment or prognosis.
Will I lose my hair? Will I lose my breasts? Will I lose my life?