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Drinking Through Cancer Treatment

It wasn't until I completed treatment for breast cancer that I finally realized I had a problem with alcohol.

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chemo and vino Photo via

By Erika Masterson

06/06/13

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If I was novelist and had my protagonist receive a cancer diagnosis on Friday the 13th, my editor would say, “too much.” But on a March day in 2009 that’s what happened to me, and as I took in those words, I desperately wished I were a fictional character. “I’m sorry, it’s cancer,” momentarily stopped my heart, like plunging into a Maine wave in late spring.

So I did what I always did when a big feeling came: I took myself—and my sister and best friend, who’d been sitting in the room when the verdict came down—to a bar. A very nice bar, of course. Where crisp Sicilian wine is served in glasses with cartoonishly long stems and the extra pour sits companionably in a wee carafe alongside it. That little vessel gave me the safest, warmest, most familiar feeling: There was more.

If you have five or more drinks a week you increase your risk of recurrence by about 34%.” Five or more a week. It hit me like a cactus branch to the face. If I kept it to five a day I saluted myself for my discipline.

It was relatively early-stage breast cancer. “Garden variety,” as my oncologist put it with practiced lightness. It nonetheless required two surgeries and five months of weekly chemo, followed by 37 straight days of radiation. None of it interfered with my daily bottles of wine, drunk alone, drunk in groups, drunk when elated, sad, hopeful, scared, angry. I’d go to chemo, the IV needle would slip into a fat vein in my wrist, and for three hours I’d sit in a comfortable recliner watching The Golden Girls on the screen attached to the arm of the chair. Then I’d go to work, and then, huzzah, it was Happy Hour.

My first drink, at 15, was a disaster—a vile brew of one inch from every bottle in my parents’ well-stocked 1970s liquor cabinet. I didn’t have that miraculous sense of finally arriving at a place I never even knew I wanted, and throughout my teens, 20s, and even into my early 30s I drank, to varying degrees, like everyone else I knew. But after a divorce and then the demise of an eight-year relationship, my drinking life slowly bloated, muscling its way into my routine like a pushy new upstairs neighbor. I saw myself as a successful, middle-aged professional woman and a good mother, stable in her community and social circles. No DUIs, no trips to rehab or the ER, no awkward requests to leave the party or pub. And I was.

I’d putter around the house after work with a short glass of wine that was never empty and never more than an arm’s length away. Cooking dinner, I’d take evenly timed swigs, holding the cold, acidic liquid in my cheek before swallowing, savoring it a little longer. I didn’t allow myself to notice what I’d begun to do: rotating liquor stores to avoid the cashier’s lingering glance, hauling out the 33-gallon recycling bags of clanking bottles late at night so I wouldn’t run into my landlord. I left social events early (even ones I was enjoying) before the booze ran out, and so I could go home and drink unselfconsciously, where I didn’t have to vigilantly watch how much (or little) everyone else was drinking and monitor my refills accordingly. I’d go to dinner with friends and excuse myself for a bathroom break that was a trip to the bar for a fast bolt.

I drank when I didn’t want to. I stayed away from potential friendships with non-drinkers. I’d uncork the prosecco in my walk-in closet so my son wouldn’t hear the pop. (A sound that always elicited a reflexive “ahh.”) Every day at 5pm a drinking colleague and I would duck into The Ginger Man on 38th Street for "A Quick One" that turned into five, leaving my son home alone for hours.

During my months of treatment my doctors considered me an exemplary patient. I was calm and brave through it all, a warrior in the elite army of women who proved that enduring it was mostly an inconvenience, something to be dealt with bluntly and then put behind you. They’d trot me around the chemo ward, introducing me to the newly diagnosed who were broken and rattled. “Erika, tell Beth here it’s not so bad.” And it wasn’t. Friends and family marveled at my equanimity. My beloved white wine saw to it that a general fuzziness would keep me from peering over the dark cliff’s edge where mortality and frailty loomed.

After treatment was completed I met with the oncologist to talk about the “what now” and what to do (to the extent that I could do anything) to keep the cancer at bay. When she asked how much I drank I told her what I’d told every doctor who’d ever asked the words that brought a shot of panic, my mind racing to say what they wanted to hear. “A social drinker—one or two.” Looking down at her clipboard, she checked off an unseen box.

“That’s great. Because one of the only scientifically verified connections to breast cancer is alcohol. If you have five or more drinks a week, you increase your risk of recurrence by about 34%.”

Five or more a week. It hit me like a cactus branch to the face. If I kept it to five a day, I saluted myself for my discipline. Yet I didn’t let the chilling number stand in my way or even slow me down. In fact, it set in motion a gruesome cycle: To calm my fears of recurrence, I drank. My drinking brought more anxiety and a soul-sick awareness that I was extending a formal invitation to death. All of the lies I’d told myself—my drinking was manageable, I deserved to drink because living alone was hard, that I didn’t drink more than [insert name of the one person I knew with a ”real problem”], that not drinking during the day was evidence I could stop, that it was all FINE—melted away like ice splashed with cognac. I was two different people: In the morning I’d wake up with my heart throbbing with shame and dread. I’d swear, swear, swear that tonight I wouldn’t drink, wouldn’t come home from work and go the refrigerator with my coat still on, unsheathing the bottle from the holster on the door. Tonight. But when quitting time rolled around giddiness spread over me. I loved that delicious moment when I knew a drink was on the horizon.

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