Map from the Great Chicago Fire of 1871

A little more than a week ago I heard the sobering news that a friend who is about a year ahead of me on this whole cancer-ing trip is experiencing a reoccurrence- with metastasis to lungs and liver.  This time around it is about more than her breasts.  She is so beloved by her wonderful family and intimate friends, and has so much to contribute to this world. It is heartbreaking that she is diving back into hard core treatment so soon, especially since she is only 6 months out from the end of her initial treatments. Hearing that someone I love is facing a rekindling of the cancer-ing flames, I feel a deep sense of gravity, knowing she is walking a perilous path.  The new drug, Perjeta, will be available to her now.  It was only approved last fall, which is why I received it, and why initially she did not. Hopefully it will provide the edge she needs to lead her towards the best possible outcome. She also has the dubious “advantage” of knowing the ropes of the whole treatment regiment for chemo- which may mean less fear of the unknown, which is something that weighed heavily on me during my first several treatments. However, I can imagine that fear of chemo unknowns might simply be traded in for a different set of demons.  Out of the frying pan into the fire, fear wise.

When I heard about her situation I thought about what my oncologist said when I was first diagnosed, “There is no such thing as a 30% reoccurrence – for the individual it either happens or it doesn’t.” Why some people have a reoccurrence, while others don’t – despite receiving similar treatments, isn’t the focus of much research. So, what specific variables create the opportunity for the little invisible metastatic cells to proliferate is hard to know. Each woman has a unique story, and I believe a unique path both into disease and back to wellness.  What I have gleaned from all my reading is that people have been cured, even from the darkest diagnosis. I am holding the possibility of her total healing in my heart.  It is what I want for her now.

Image from the Great Chicago Fire of 1871
Image from the Great Chicago Fire of 1871

“In 2013, there were more than 2.8 million women with a history of breast cancer in the U.S. This includes women currently being treated and women who have finished treatment.”                         (from Breast

2.8 million women in the U.S. are living with the reality of having been diagnosed with breast cancer. Cancer-ing in our bosom, right at the the center of comfort & nourishment for our babies and symbols of the power of our sex appeal.  2.8 million is roughly the population of Chicago in the 2010 census.  Just as Chicago is the center of our nations’s heartland, our breasts are the very heartland of our bodies,. However you divide up women into groups – by race, income, or religion – no group is untouched.  Cancer-ing of the breast cuts a wide path across our nation.

Court House & City Hall -Chicago Fire 1871
Court House & City Hall after the Great Chicago Fire 1871

Each year roughly 230,000 new cases are diagnosed, and each year nearly 40,000 will die of it. The path of destruction cut by breast cancer could be compared to the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. Which swept through that city, effecting rich and poor, leaving 100,000 homeless in October – with bitter cold winter just around the corner.  Like that fire, this inferno of breast cancer leaves us all vulnerable.

Children gathering spilled coal in the Chicago Train Yard.
Children In Chicago gathering spilled coal for their families  along the railroad tracks.

The “causes” of breast cancer are many and varied- they are like many small fires burning all around us. The Great Chicago fire may or may not have started in the O’Leary’s barn, but the Breast Cancer Inferno is being fed from every direction, and there is no Mrs. O’Leary to scapegoat.  Breast Cancer is about more than all of our breasts. It is about the toxins none of us can avoid. It is about the societal and family systems that tell us we are not enough.  It is about the separation from nature that creates disease. I believe cancer-ing is “caused” by a multitude of things, and that the specific sequence of happenstance that leads to a diagnosis is not that important.  It all leads to cancer.

Chicago Fire 1871
Rubble after the Chicago Fire of 1871

When I compare Breast Cancer-ing to the Chicago Fire I also think about how that city recovered from its devastation.  The effort to rebuild Chicago required tremendous human creativity and fortitude.  I believe that we need that same creativity and fortitude to address the reality of 2.8 million women dancing with breast cancer.  I speak less about a call to action seeking more research into the biology of our cells- that is the work of only a few.  I am pining for something that we can all contribute to. Like the bucket brigades that were used to put out the Chicago fire, and the many hands that rebuilt that city, we need something that we can do as individuals to address what is happening to our mothers, sisters, friends, wives and daughters.

Crew of Men who helped rebuild Chicago
one crew of men who helped rebuild Chicago after the fire.

If the common people could rebuild Chicago over a hundred years ago with hand tools, might we not be able to take bold action towards a healthier world today with our own hands.  We can make progress in small ways, because just as Cancer-ing is the result of a cumulative process, rebalancing our world will be a cumulative process.

If we open our mind’s eye to see the big picture- to recognize how our actions may be setting fires that support cancer-ing, rather than healing, we can make different choices. For instance making the choice not to use pesticides, and to oppose their use on public lands would have tremendous impact.  Or perhaps it might look like practicing compassionate communication- empathy heals and sends out ripples of goodness. I am sure there are many many ways to be part of a healing bucket brigade.  Such actions will shower benefit over not just our cells, but also pollinators, salmon and sea turtles.  Just as poisons affect the whole, so conscious acts of nurturing, kindness and healing affect the whole. If we each put our efforts towards putting out “fires” perhaps it will add up to be the best cancer-ing preventative of all.   Perhaps our grandchildren will remember us as the ones who worked to rebuild balance, just as we remember those who rebuilt Chicago after the fire.

4 Comments Add yours

  1. Eileen says:

    Sorry to hear about your friend. Hope the new drug works great for her. Breast cancer is a lot more prevalent than I realized. If cancer was caused by only one thing than it certainly would be a lot easier to cure. love ya.

  2. Julia says:

    Thank you Iris for your courage, endurance, faith and message. Your light continues to burn brightly, inspiring us all. Love and prayers continue. Julia

  3. sue skinner says:

    Might you be interested in testifying before the Astoria City Council about the dangers of using herbicides and pesticides on public areas in the city? Jessica Schlieff and a few others and i are studying up on Casoron, an herbicide that’s being used here, that’s been banned in Europe since 2011. We are also asking the city to post areas that have been treated with potentially toxic chemicals. with the name of the toxin and the date it was applied, and the expected persistence of the effects on soil, perennials, grass, aquatic systems. For instance, animals are not to graze on land treated with Casoron for five years. That include chickens

    The othr really worrisome chemical group is the neonictoid, whic not only are terribly toxic to bees, but now are being shown as extremely poisonous to insect-eating birds, which might very well explain the dearth of even the lowly starling ni my neighborhood over the past couple years. And the swallows, which used to be legion, have now disappeared. This is not normal, as my dentist says.

    Astoria has access to as much free bark mulch as it needs, The use of Casoron is not about cost, since it’s got to be more expensive than free, even with deals. And JP MPSS sisn’t use chemicals on city landscaping or lawns during his tenure… We know it’s already being used at Smith Point,, a wetland, where it will disperse directlyi nto Young’s Bay.

    We are asking for a list of what chemicals are being used in the city. Then,, we can research their potential toxicities/carcinogenicities, persistence, and return to the council with more information, and request/demand for action to reduce and eliminate their use..

    You are a very effective speaker and this seems like a worthy project for our fledgling public lands interest group to get involved in, especially considering the unusually large numbers of young people with serious disease here which might very well be impacted by chronic exposure to these chemicals.

    next Astoria City Council meeting is july 21 at 7 PM at Council Chambers, City Hall,Duane near 11th. Please, anyone who has interest in helping Astoria be a safe place for all of us, including our watersheds and fish, come to the meeting and speak briefly about your concerns.

    We need to keep working on creating our Bali Hai….

    Lots of Love,

    Sue S. ..

  4. Joan E. Duncan says:

    Thanks Iris, I would add plastics, of all kinds, to the list of damaging chemicals in our recent midst. Don’t use them. Go back to glass. period.
    Love from Joan

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