Judith Willdo -- not her real name -- is a suburban Maryland woman of 72. She has an uncured, widely disseminated cancer that began with a single breast cancer 8 1/2 years ago. She gets regular treatments.
She has trouble keeping up her spirits sometimes, and she gets treatment for that, too. She has been and is still working her way through some personal emotional crises.
She is also, I can testify on the basis of a recent conversation, one of the most positive and cheering persons I have ever met.
Some of her treatments and views are standard and accepted. Some are not, but she believes that they help her, and she does not substitute them for accepted forms of treatment.
She tells her story:
"I first had breast cancer in 1978, and I had a radical mastectomy. Then nothing until 1980 when my tumor showed up in my spine. I had radiation and medication. Then in 1983 I had a lot of metastases to my bones . . . Now I'm on radiation again and a new medication . . .
"I'm more or less convinced that it's a psychosomatic disease. I had a very traumatic personal experience in 1983. I broke up with the man I'd been in love with for over 20 years when I discovered he was bisexual. I couldn't handle that. I had all sorts of physiologic effects, and the recurrence of my cancer. I felt, really, dammit! I was sure the stress was responsible . . .
"I'm a fighter. I was born on the East Side of New York, and my parents were immigrants from the mountains of Greece. I was not about to give up, and I still think it's an ongoing battle.
"I've benefited from good medical treatment. My doctors also had sense enough to suggest that maybe I needed some psychiatric help, which I receive.
"There have been times when I didn't know whether I wanted to live or die. I said that to one of my therapists, and he said, 'It's up to you, isn't it?' I decided I wanted to live, obviously . . .
"You have to want to survive. It's hard sometimes. This winter was awful. I had arthritis and osteoporosis and a lot of bone pain. My mobility is limited. But now I'm getting ready for a trip to see friends.
"I'm a speech therapist. Now and then I still see a patient. I cook. I see my children and grandchildren. Or I do something else pleasant. I enjoy people. I enjoy human relationships more than anything else."
How does she feel about knowing she is not cured and her days may be numbered?
"I don't think about it anymore. For a while I kept asking my doctor, 'How much time do I have?' He said he hated to think about that. I finally realized that thinking about it kind of shortens your time. You just have to keep on fighting . . .
"Intellectually and realistically, I know that sometime there will be no more I can do. Then I think that I'd like to be with my family and be as comfortable as I can. I just keep hoping I'll beat the odds. I've beaten them so far -- that's what they tell me . . .
"I've had a lot of people say, 'You won't be around in a couple of years.' I don't know how they know! I come from a family of long livers. I keep thinking about that. I'm not going to disappoint my genetic heritage . . .
"I take one day at a time. That sounds like a platitude. But what else can you do? I think a measure of hope helps. And I believe I have some control -- some control over what I can do for my immune system.
"I work on visual imaging. I see my cancer cells progressing to where they become normal cells. Then I see a white castle in the blue sky, and that represents my life's goals. And I've seen myself swimming in the stream and not sitting on a bench watching the world go by. That told me I was no longer in the dream world but getting involved in life's progress. And I wake up every morning and think, 'Thank God I'm alive.'
"One doctor told me, 'I don't know what you're doing, but keep on doing it.' "