Sandy Schwalb: ‘Merry’ May can be quite a month

Sandy Schwalb


I have a love-hate relationship with the month of May. It can be beautiful, the winter is a distant memory (we hope), the days are getting longer and my sport of choice – baseball – is in full swing! But, alas, it has not always been perfect for me.

It was May 2004 when, during a routine visit, my doctor found a very small lump in my right breast. He sent me for a mammogram and then a sonogram to determine if that lump was “suspicious.” Later that same day, a radiologist let me cry when she said the lump was, i fact, suspicious, and I would have to return to the hospital for a biopsy.

It was a Monday in late May when Steve, my husband, and I went back to the hospital for the biopsy. Alert the media – it was not fun. Three days later, at work, I received the call. All I heard the doctor say was “malignant.” And yes, I cried, which is rarely a positive experience at work, in a cubicle, located in a large room where there is no privacy. In between sobs I called Steve. We decided it was not a great night to go grocery shopping as planned, but we needed to go out to dinner instead. It was sushi.

It was also the month in which we celebrated our 12th wedding anniversary and surprise, I cried a lot. We made plans to celebrate and I remember – we had Vietnamese food and it was delicious. Aren’t food memories the best?

Once the crying stopped and the poor, pitiful me routine grew stale, I began to see myself as a survivor and not a victim.

It was in June that I celebrated my birthday, which was great, despite the negative vibes from May.

I was diagnosed with early stage cancer in my right breast and had surgery in June. The rest of that summer was spent undergoing eight weeks of radiation therapy and just like that, the cancer was a thing of the past. Well, it wasn’t THAT quick and easy, but 12 years later that is what I choose to remember. You know, that is my story and I am sticking to it?

“Living with cancer” has many side effects, both physical and emotional. But let’s be honest … the operative word here is “living.” There are issues, but there is life, as well as anniversaries, birthdays, etc.

I survived to see my daughter get married, watch baseball return to D.C. after 30-plus years, retire after working for close to 40 years and move to Front Royal, after living with the craziness of Northern Virginia for more than 30 years.

I always thought of healing in the physical sense – a wound, a scar, a boo boo! But the mental and emotional healing after beast cancer treatments is something I had never thought about. The idea of being diagnosed with breast cancer had always scared me so much … until I was actually diagnosed with it. I had no time to dwell upon the “what if’s” or “how did I get this?” I just had to move forward. So, my healing actually began as soon as I came to terms with my diagnosis and realized I had to deal with it!

I love this quote, attributed to the late Mickey Mantle, an all-star outfielder of the pinstriped New York Yankees who played, shall we say, last century. He said, “If I knew I was going to live this long, I would have taken better care of myself.” Survivors, take note!

But May – that was the month I became a cancer survivor. May 27, 2004 to be exact. That was the day I realized I would be able to wear one of those pink survivor shirts with pride. In fact, Steve said I was destined to get a disease that would allow me to accessorize! Yes, I love pink. So, May can be quite a month – some really good times, but some really bad. You know, that love-hate thing.

For close to 40 years Sandy Schwalb worked in the U.S. Senate, for a library association and two U.S. federal agencies. She has been a writer, editor, and public affairs officer. She is now happily retired, lives in Front Royal, and spends much of her time volunteering for a number of animal rescue organizations in the area.