A Woman Under Construction

Our Stories, Survivor February 8, 2017

Isabelle Barbour
Tucson, AZ

Breast Cancer, 2005
Ovarian Cancer, 2008
BRCA positive
Isabelle’s book, A Woman Under Construction

Looking back over twelve years of cancer treatment, it is difficult for me to identify a darkest hour. There were many treacherous pot holes on my road, especially in the beginning when decisions were so important and the consequences of a wrong step so severe.

Perhaps I recall events in various hues of darkness: the oppressing indigo of fear gobbling me up in the night, when I was so ill I was afraid to sleep lest I not wake up. The orange/purple aura of nausea when I once got sick in every direction during a PET scan. Humiliated and mortified, I had myself a good cry as I trashed my own clothes and accepted a borrowed scrub suit from a compassionate technician. Outside, all alone, I gazed up at the night and searched cobalt heavens for One who could help me face my predicament. I needed a miracle.

There was the dark, murky green of panic as an incision broke down and my guts burst through desperate fingers and oozed toward the floor. There was the sapphire sharp anger toward a doctor who didn’t see why I should harbor any hope for survival. Darkest hours come in many hues.

If I could go back and redirect my steps on that road, I would have ignored my oncologist’s advice that I should avoid genetic testing. He said he had seen the results of such testing cause much trouble and grief in families. That misstep threw me into the deepest pot hole of all. It left me wide open to the possibility of ovarian cancer. The protocols of being BRCA positive would have induced me to have the one ovary I possessed removed, and saved me the torment of the last eight years of fighting ovarian cancer. That ovary, which I no longer needed anyway, has tried to consume me and end my life many times. At times, I have felt betrayed by that oncologist, whom I had trusted with my very life. The hour I realized that I would not have contracted ovarian cancer if only I had gotten the genetic testing during breast cancer treatment, well, that was a very dark hour indeed.

Yet, as my mother used to say, “You can’t un-ring a bell.” I did contract ovarian cancer, and it taught me that all I had gone through with breast cancer was a walk in the park compared to the complexities and difficulties of treating ovarian cancer.

I was almost gone by the time ovarian cancer was diagnosed, and no one expected me to survive the first occurrence, much less all the recurrences that have followed. The surgeries, the complications, the chemotherapies – they all left me feeling flayed alive, stripped down layer by layer, and abandoned in heaps and piles all over a room I could not leave.

For a while, I only knew the passage of days by the arrival of the nurse who came each day to re-pack all the holes in me. Later, I became more sentient of my existence and learned to listen for the squeaky wheels of a taco truck that lumbered down my street every morning, heralding the fact that I had lived another day. Still later, granddaughters who hopped up on my bed to say good night became events to live for, and I began to take waking up the next morning for granted.

Coming out of that abyss changed me in ways that are difficult to describe. I was somehow more transparent, a gossamer Isabelle, held together with the fairy threads of love as my family and friends cheered me on. As I healed, I noticed I had less tolerance for the games people play, and a need to set priorities for whatever would become the rest of my life. It was a process of reinventing myself, and the One I had prayed so earnestly to for help provided all the tools as I became able to understand them.

I learned that surviving cancer depends in great part on one’s attitude about it. A positive attitude is paramount to survival, and left me little time for the whiners and gripers in my life. Lopping off the negative branches on my life’s “tree” left me refreshingly strong and willowy, and fully able to redirect my own growth.

Cancer is selfish. It is consuming. It will dictate the patient’s every waking minute if it can. I was blessed to realize that I had lived through a perilous time, and now I needed to take my life back and use it in some meaningful way. I didn’t really think of that time as a 2nd Act. I was just startled to find myself still alive and needed something to do.

I joined a church that ran a homeless outreach, and I did not tell them I was in treatment for cancer, because I didn’t want those good people to worry about me. I knew I was blessed to have more to give in this world, and they let me help. In a tiny kitchen, volunteers put together delicious meals for as many as two hundred street people and other marginalized folks. Parked in front of a sink and massive piles of dishes and pots and pans, I became part of a kitchen crew of volunteers trying to help feed hungry people – not a cancer patient – and I guess that’s as happy as I have ever been. The smiles and thanks of homeless people taught me that if you want to change anything, first change your attitude about it.

Lately I’m fighting for survival again, but I know if I don’t cow down to the rapacious illness of cancer, I will be back in front of a sink or somewhere, hoping to lessen the pain in another’s world.

I often think of a song by Jewel, called “A Life Uncommon.” She sings, “We are tired, we are weary, but we aren’t worn out.” Me, either.

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