New goal, after breast cancer, is to make it to the bridge


THE PHONE rings on a sunny morning. Your test results are in. The lump they removed was positive. You have breast cancer.

Without knowing it, you set a goal for yourself. You make an unconscious decision not to scream. Or throw the phone. You remain calm. Make an appointment to see the doctor later in the week.

Your next goal is to tell your husband. To leave the room where your daughter and her friend are and, taking the phone with you to the garage, call him. The goal being not to upset him. If possible.

Next on your new to-do list: Tell your 9-year-old daughter. But tell her in a way that won't frighten her. Or ruin Christmas, which is three days away. So you try. And to some degree, succeed.

The weeks pass. Goals change. Surgery again. Healing becomes the dangling carrot. Driving to the hospital every day for radiation, but not letting it completely dominate the rest of your day.

Cooking, eating, remembering to pick up your child from school -- all become goals. Trying not to cry when a Celine Dion song comes on.

A cancer survivor

Months pass. And finally, a couple of years. And your goals begin to look more like everyone else's. It has been almost five years since the diagnosis, and now the bridge is my goal.

I have started running. Three times a week I take my dog Moka, load him in the car and head to the woods.

In my side mirror, I can see his gray, shaggy head. If he could sing, I think he would. We park in the shade, just beyond the ranger kiosk. After letting Moka jump out, I lock the car. Check all the doors. Moka pulls at the leash. Anxious to run. He's a big dog, so not only are my legs getting stronger, but my arms also are becoming less flapdoodly.

Even on foggy days others are out on the trails. Courteous mountain bikers approaching us from behind call out, "On the left." Other runners pass. And then, sometimes, there is no one. Just the quiet of the forest, interrupted by the sound of my sneakers hitting the dirt road, my breathing, the sound of leaves crunching as Moka trots along.

Running free

It's a bit over a mile from where I park to the bridge, which crosses a small creek. Sometimes the road is dusty. Sometimes Moka catches a scent and runs in front of me, cutting me off unexpectedly. Once in a while, I get a stitch in my side. But we keep going.

The objective: To be brave enough to keep looking for cancer, knowing I might find it. I cheat sometimes.

When I see the bridge in the distance, I turn around and start back. But most days we make it to the water. We reward ourselves with a few minutes in the shade.

Letting Moka off his leash, I watch as he runs down the embankment to the creek. He rips the silence wide open. One of these days, instead of stopping, we'll cross the bridge. That has become my new goal.

As though crossing that bridge will bring me closer to who I used to be. As though my healthy, strong body is cooling her heels just on the other side.

On this day we got out and ran earlier than usual. The ground was damp. No dust. Moka was well behaved. My legs felt strong. And up ahead was the bridge. Waiting. And I wonder if crossing it will take me out of the woods.

Claudia Sternbach is author of "Now Breathe" (Whitaker Press), a book about her experience with breast cancer. She wrote this for the San Francisco Examiner.

Pub Date: 10/07/99

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