A Dragon in My Midst
A breast cancer diagnosis brought Donna to the Family House. Here, touches of home and friendly faces made lasting impressions. Here, she got the courage to open up about her experience.
“The ancient world was one of mystery and danger to the early explorers. Their maps, so colorful and imbued with whimsy, were fanciful, exotic, more useful for inspiration than for navigation. They sought to make sense of the world, of course. But that sense was limited, infused with hope and fear. ‘Beyond here,’ they wrote at the end of the Known World, ‘there be dragons.’
And thus I felt the same way, earlier this year, staring at the screen of a CT image in the office of an oncologist. The cancer that invaded the ducts of my breast was strangely beautiful, swirling, stylized. Its reality, dangerous. A dragon in my midst.
“I had never been sick before.”
Choosing Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center for my treatment was the best decision of my life. I had never been sick before. I was scared about what cancer meant to me and my family. My doctors were confident and prepared. In fact, it seemed that my path was especially well-traveled. My surgeon’s assistant recommended the SECU Family House. I was reluctant, tentative, but realized that coming to Wake meant I would have to drive four hours a day. My husband would have to take excessive time off from work to care for me. The assistant made the arrangements and, the evening of my first surgery, my husband and I checked in.
“Through it all, there was humor, grace, relaxation, peace.”
At the very least, the Family House was a revelation. It was beautiful, more southern hospitality spa than accommodations for sick people. It was airy and beautiful with art, a piano, a cozy library I made my own, and a huge, granite-clad kitchen where volunteer groups often served up evening meals for grateful guests. Through it all, there was humor, grace, relaxation, peace.
I was sitting in the dining room the day after my second surgery when I was approached by a winsome, bald woman in a sweatshirt. She, too, had breast cancer and had undergone a double mastectomy, chemo, and was taking her last day of radiation. She was the first person I really spoke with about my Cancer, my first fumbling attempts to tell my acquaintances was so disastrous that I had come to the conclusion that keeping it to myself was the way to go. “We’re gonna rebuild my breasts then throw a big dance party,” she laughed, giving a little shimmy for effect. “Don’t worry,” she said. “You’ll make it.”
My room was beautiful, with Sallie Middleton prints on the wall, just like home. I knew Ms. Middleton, so these alone have been a great comfort to me. There were friends and cooking, just like home. And though this house is nothing like my real home, I have found the common elements of it more than slightly reassuring. I’ll remember the laughter of volunteers cooking dinner, making ginger cookies, serving ice cream. I’ll carry with me the ragged souls of people facing illness, the great unknown, the promise of health gleaming like a far away margin, one that some will meet and some will not.
Beyond here, there be dragons.
As always, it is love that looses the sword from the stone.
And armed with that, each warrior is ready for the fight, whatever it may be.”
Donna L. M. Khan is an award-winning magazine writer and editor whose work has appeared in Town & Country, Veranda and other magazines. She is the Visiting Professor of Magazine Journalism at Montreat College in North Carolina.