Author Kelly Corrigan and I have a lot in common: We are both Irish, we both have breast cancer and we both had fathers with bladder cancer.
So why did I have such a negative reaction to “The Middle Place”?
In interviews, Corrigan stressed her book isn’t a cancer memoir. “That’s so not what this is,” she told USA Today. “The cancer was incidental. It could have been any crisis. But what it did was made me realize how much I still needed my parents.”
Jealousy may certainly play a role. My mom died a few weeks after I graduated from high school. Kelly’s mom made it to the Golden Years as did her father. “Greenie” survived his cancer–my dad didn’t.
Greenie Corrigan, an ad space salesman, was an Olympic lacrosse player and a long-time coach. My father, a WWII vet, managed an insurance underwriting division. He was a huge football fan.
In 2006, 36-year-old Kelly was diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer. In 2009, the 43-year-old me was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer.
Kelly had eight cycles of chemotherapy, a lumpectomy and two months of radiation therapy. I had a mastectomy, about the same period of radiation and take an antihormonal pill. My treatment is ongoing.
Kelly grew up with two brothers; I have five brothers and a sister. Like Kelly Corrigan, the O’Brien girls were accorded a special status: We did not have to mow the lawn (plenty of boys around to do that). I was responsible for emptying household wastebaskets; my brother John had the unenviable task of hauling the smelly garbage cans to the curb every week.
As a teenager, Kelly wanted to get an after school job at the mall so that she could buy her own clothes. Her mother nixed this plan on the grounds of personal safety. My sister and I worked at McDonald’s after school and during school vacations. My parents didnt’ drive. Usually we got a ride home from the manager or fellow employees. Once or twice, on a closing shift, I couldn’t get a ride so I called my father and he walked me home. He was a night owl–I don’t think he minded walking a mile there and back with me, even though it was probably close to 11:30 when we got home.
My father used to say I described my childhood as though I was the Little Match Girl. That’s probably true–I did feel very sorry for myself.
Everyone was expected to get a job from about the age of 10. My siblings and I delivered thousands of newspapers, free circulars and, once, even laundry detergent samples. As I toted my weary load I would often imagine myself starring in “Someone You Should Know,” a weekly feature on Channel 2 News with anchor Harry Porterfield.
“It’s Wednesday,” Harry would intone in his courtly and distinguished tones. “We are accompanying Kathy O’Brien as she delivers 50 Independent Registers in on this bleak winter night. Tantalizing scents fill the air as the families in this neighborhood sit down to dinner, but O’Brien has miles to go before she can eat, nevermind sleep.”
Harry, wearing an impressive Chesterfield overcoat, would shiver and gaze behind him at the deserted suburban street. “My, it’s awfully cold out here.”
“I’m used to it, Harry,” I would say from the depths of my green parka with the snorkel hood. “Doesn’t bother me anymore.”
“Say,” Harry would ask. “You must be more than 20 blocks from your house. Just how much are they paying you?”
“Nine dollars a month,” I would say as a dog mournfully howled in the distance . “Of course that’s just for the Independent Registers. This afternoon I also delivered 250 circulars for two cents apiece.”
“That’s outrageous!” Harry respond. “Are there no child labor laws? Is the governor aware of this transgression?”
“No one cares, Harry,” I would say as I removed my glasses and scratched away the frost that had built up. “That’s the way the cookie crumbles.”
“You poor thing,” Harry would say, as a tear streaked down his cheek. “Thanks for being on Someone You Should Know.”
At 29, Kelly cashed in her 401k and spent her Christmas vacation traveling in India. As the daughter of Depression era parents, I would never be so bold as to spend my retirement savings (especially considering the tax consequences). Plus, I am a timid voyager. I have traveled extensively for my job, but I am too nervous to try solo trekking.
It bothered me that Corrigan, so meticulous in researching and understanding her father’s bladder cancer either didn’t know or didn’t choose explain much about her own diagnosis. For example, when the doctor doing her biopsy comments on her dense breasts, Corrigan seems to take this as a compliment.
Unfortunately, as this Medscape article notes: breast cancer, especially noncalcificed breast cancer, is more likely to be missed in dense breasts than in radiologically fatty breasts. There’s even an advocacy group: www.areyoudense.org. Corrigan is HER2 positive (thank you, Dr. Google to whom HIPPA does not apply) and has gotten Herceptin, a drug that has its own Lifetime movie with Harry Connick Jr. How could you not write about that?
I also envied the Corrigan’s lacrosse and business connections. Kelly’s brother had an “in” with a Mark Schoeberg, one of the foremost authorities on bladder cancer. Her book originally took the shape of emails and a 7-page letter. A friend set the wheels in motion that got her a deal with ICM.
Published in 2008, “The Middle Place” was best seller. It even has its own Book Club discussion guide:
How do you think Kelly feels about her mother? What does she seem to want from her and what does she actually get from her? What events cause her to see her mother differently over time?
My own connections weren’t as deep but they were no less valuable to me. All of my siblings reached out to me in their own way. John, our sanitation engineer back in the day, is a doctor. As the ground seemed to be reeling under my feet, John helped me regain my balance. He told me who I had to call, explained the various tests and their results and helped me set up a second opinion consultation. Ironically, my father had seen the same oncologist some years before. Other people might have more connections than John, but few are as compassionate.
Marnie, my sister-in-law’s sister, is an oncology nurse. “If cancer is the answer, the issue is the tissue,” she told me as I awaited my biopsy results. Later she shared my indignity at one doctor’s confusing assessment. Marnie will never get me on “Good Morning America,” but she got me through a very difficult afternoon.
Kelly Corrigan describes the Middle Place being someone’s child, but also having children of her own. Corrigan had been married for seven years and had two daughters under age four when she was diagnosed with cancer. She turned to her parents for comfort: “…There you are, clutching the phone and thanking God that you’re still somebody’s daughter.”
I’m not married and I don’t have children. As an adult, I helped care for my sick father, but I didn’t have Corrigan’s direct involvement. John, as well as my oldest brother and my sister were the ones that typically took my dad to the doctor and later coordinated his hospice care. We all helped, but they took the lead.
A fellow blogger observed that cancer isn’t like an action movie. Often, there are long stretches where nothing is happening. Things are pretty boring, thank goodness.
The first time to you have to drink Redi-Cat barium solution prior to a scan, it’s novel. I know I cracked a lot of jokes. After awhile it seems routine because it is.
And that’s my Middle Place.