Drinking Through Cancer Treatment

By William Georgiades 06/06/13

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

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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.

In March of 2011 I called Intergroup. Even though I was aware that there would be an alcoholic on the other end of the line, I was humiliated just saying hello. I asked about meetings and where I could find them. I did nothing with the information because simply placing the call seemed like too much of a surrender. I called again in April, and then in May. On May 14 I went out for my last drink with that colleague, confessing that the next day I was going to walk into an AA room. I asked a different friend to come with me; I couldn’t fathom going alone. I stepped across the worn threshold knowing in the core of my being that I’d never have another day of hazy happiness and ease. When the chairperson asked if there was anyone counting days I didn’t know what that meant but raised my hand. I wouldn’t say my name, and I sure as hell wasn’t going to follow it with, “and I’m an alcoholic.” I didn’t share my day count for another 16 days. The first time I heard laughter, at a particularly horrible story of degradation no less, it was a revelation. What on earth was so funny, and wasn’t it cruel to be laughing at details so intimate and shameful? But I went back, marveling each time that I could feel in tune with a room full of drunks sitting cross-legged on dented metal chairs, gazing up at unevenly painted walls, sharing their tales of woe, of how they set foot upon the craggy, winding road of recovery, and how they stayed on it.

Being sober also means finally extruding what it meant, and means, to have had cancer.

For nearly a year I couldn’t do certain things that I loved because they were so tightly entwined around alcohol, my estranged best friend. I couldn’t take long hot soaks in my deep bathtub because a glass wasn’t perched on the edge. I didn’t sit on my stoop, knees drawn up, watching the parade of life on my Greenwich Village street because there was no bowl filled with ice nestling a bottle of white bordeaux, hidden behind a planter of geraniums. Every night as I read in bed I ate spoonful after spoonful of sticky almond butter drizzled with honey to replace the bedside cup that I used to drain even as my lids drooped.

But little by little I became ambulatory in the world around me, like putting weight on a sprained ankle, reducing the swelling with an icepack of patience and willingness and humility. So much humility for a grandiose, defiant control freak was unimaginable, but I worked at it. I’m still prone to flagellating myself for my past and looking with wariness at the future. I sometimes miss the bracing possibility that a booze-fueled night may take a wild and unexpected turn. “They sicken of calm who knew the storm,” Dorothy Parker wrote, and I know what she meant. But in exchange I’ve been laid off from the second job I had of obsessing about alcohol: How I’d get to it, how I’d hide it, how I needed to quit it.

My extra time is now filled with actually doing the things I used to talk passionately about doing, wine sloshing in my glass as I held forth about the ills of the world. The animation was more buzz than commitment. I’ve become involved in wildlife conservation and animal welfare issues, and while it can be painful and frustrating to face the daunting work that needs to be done, and the emotionally draining realities of it, I know that my efforts, modest but sincere, are actions I can be proud of and part of.

Being sober also means finally extruding what it meant, and means, to have had cancer. It means not being numbly cavalier, and not tamping down the enormity of a life-threatening disease. The prospect of again hearing those awful words delivered by a somber doctor are never far from my mind. But I also know that, for right now, I’m not stacking the deck against myself. I’m daring to live.

Erika Masterson is a pseudonym for an editor in New York.

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