I was sorry to learn that Virginia “Ginny” Dimpfl died last night at age 58. Because I have another friend named Ginny (Ginny Knackmuhs, my fellow MBCN board member), I thought of her as “Ginny D.” Ginny K lives in New Jersey and is thus “East Coast Ginny.” Ginny D lived in San Francisco and was therefore, “West Coast Ginny.”
Ginny D. and I spoke on the phone several times in the past few months–she was interested in volunteering with the Metastatic Breast Cancer Network. Ginny D. spent the past two decades in marketing communications with Hewlett Packard. She must have been perfect for that job–she was warm, organized and direct–within a few minutes of our first conversation, she had outlined a great idea for MBCN’s annual conference. She had energy and enthusiasm–I really looked forward to meeting her in person.
But that was not to be. Ginny D and I spoke for last time about a month ago. Her treatment was not working and she was looking for a clinical trial. Despite this dizzying turn of events (and attendant physical discomfort) Ginny D’s voice was no less cheerful or enthusiastic. She was sorry she couldn’t do the project we’d discussed–although we barely knew each other, I sensed Ginny D. was a person with a keenly developed sense of responsibility–if she said she was going to do something, she wanted to honor that commitment. I assured her everything would be fine and that of course taking care of herself should be her top priority.
Ginny D was first diagnosed with Stage IIb, ER/PR+, HER2 negative breast cancer in May of 2012. She had neoadjuvant chemo, a mastectomy and radiation in January 2013. For a year, all was well–but in January 2014 she learned she had liver mets. “I have moved from a corporate marketing career, to focus on ‘being’ and ‘writing,’ ” she said in June 2014 when she contacted MBCN. “The struggles are different, the questions more, the meaning of all greater. I now view breast cancer as entirely different disease.”
Ginny D submitted the following essay to the Bay Area Breast Cancer Connections Annual Writing Contest. She won the contest.
Today Is Enough
By Virginia Dimpfl
New York was shivering under a polar vortex while here in California we were doing daily rain dances to ward off one of the worst droughts in history. But I was off to The Big Apple in the morning with some gal pals and nothing was going to deter me. I had a great plan: four friends, three plays, two pizzas, one shopping expedition, all finished off nicely with a walk through Central Park in the snow and a whole lot of laughs in between.
It had been exactly one year since I completed my breast cancer treatment, and I was still practicing when to say “yes” and when to say “no.” I was saying yes to fun, friends and family that made me laugh out loud, and who supported and encouraged me to move on from what was no longer working in my life. I said no to the demands of my corporate job in favor of the more flexible hours of consulting, and was declining dinner parties that required me to bring the apps, not the software kind, but those featuring the latest artisanal cheese, skewered this, roasted that, or pizza topped with arugula. Going away with girlfriends for the weekend, however, was new for me.
I was a work in progress, educating myself and working hard at doing all I could to keep the cancer from recurring. I threw out the last of the toxic cleaning supplies and plastic food containers, hung out in the aisles of health food stores, read shampoo labels and dropped off truckloads of pots and pans with coatings of unknown origins. I was determined to live healthier, more joyfully and with greater purpose than ever before. I had accepted the moniker of ‘survivor.’
Walking through our front door the night before leaving, I was anxious to tell my husband, the latest details of my New York travel plans. He didn’t so much as greet me at the door as simply handed me the phone, “It’s your Doctor.” In a New York minute, all of my joyful doing and practicing of new life lessons faded to grey as the anxiety of the cancer returning came into view. On the other end of the line, my oncologist encouraged me to enjoy my weekend away assuring me that we would redo my blood work when I returned. In the meantime, she would set up an ultrasound and MRI just in case. I hung up knowing that “when I returned” I would be facing the news that my cancer had returned unwelcomed.
It has now been six months since I received the diagnosis of metastatic breast cancer. I am one of more than 155,000 men and women for whom there is no cure. My course of treatment is not as clearly defined as it was with my initial diagnosis. I will stay on an oral chemotherapy regimen until the cancer cells are no longer retreating or the side effects become too debilitating. After that I will consider the next course of treatment and the next and the next. But, so far, so good.
With metastatic breast cancer comes one kind of clarity: I no longer live with burden of uncertainty of whether the cancer will return. I live, instead with the knowledge that it has returned. This unconsoling clarity raises more uncertainties, different burdens, new questions. Am I still a survivor? Will the cancer metastasize to other organs? What does this all mean for my quality of life? How do I want to spend my days and nights now? How many more days and nights do I have to spend?
Of course, these are big life questions to which there are no universal or certain answers. But my new reality requires new learnings and new knowledge. Here’s some of what I know today:
I know that I don’t want to go to battle against something that has no known cause or cure, rather I want to continue to nurture the compassion in myself that will help make a difference to me and others in my life.
I know that I need to find new language that describes my own personal journey and that being a ‘survivor’ is no longer adequate or descriptive enough as I face the limits of this metaphor.
I know that some days I am better and more skilled at living with new uncertainties than on others.
What I have done, and what I’m doing is enough. It is enough to read a poem, to drive my neighbor to church on Sundays, to walk 3 – not run 5 – miles with a friend, to send a surprise riddle to a grandniece or nephew. It is enough to write a letter, sign a petition, donate my time and money to those organizations that matter most to me.
I know that for today it is enough to practice being more and doing less.