And so it (quite suddenly and unexpectedly) begins…

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This post was born out of a cruel coincidence. The kind of coincidence that might make you think God has a very sick sense of humor, if you happened to believe in that kind of small-minded Higher Power. I prefer to think of it the way a dear friend once described a major setback: “It’s an AFGO! Another F__ing Growth Opportunity!”

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Judy Muller

So here’s the AFGO: two USC professors, co-teaching a new course forged from two academic disciplines, were each diagnosed with breast cancer in the same year. I am one of those professors. I teach Journalism. My colleague, Alison Trope, is a professor of Communication.

We are both on the faculty of the Annenberg School at USC, where we created a course we call “Discover, Deconstruct, Design: Navigating Media and News in the Digital Age” — — a fancy title for “How to Detect Crap and Create Stuff that is NOT Crap.” But that’s the way I would put it. Alison would probably not put it that way. That’s because we are from very different cultures. Communication is rooted in academic theory, and journalism is rooted in professional practice. That means we often speak different languages. She says “hegemony” and I say “the powers that be.” No big deal, you might be thinking, just a bit of “toe-MAY-toe, toe-MAH-toe,” but you would be surprised at how many times we found ourselves colliding over terminology and focus. This year, our second year of teaching the course, we have managed to iron out the wrinkles. We still speak different languages, but we have been discovering new ways to weave them together. What could go wrong?

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Cue the AFGO.

As the fates would have it, we now find ourselves conversing in a common language, after all. It’s still a FOREIGN language for both of us, filled with terms like Invasive Ductal Carcinoma, HER-2 positive and negative, and OncotypeDX–-to name but a few. Suddenly, all the tussle over theory versus practice seems about as important as arguing over an agenda item at a faculty meeting. We have entered the land of Cancer-speak.

It makes us cry, this foreign place, separately and together. And then we find ways to laugh, separately and together. We needed to write about it. This post and the ones to follow are for us, but we hope to hear from others because we would welcome the company.

So here is my part: in November of 2015, a routine mammogram found something “suspicious,” and I was called back for more tests, including a needle biopsy and sonogram. I was diagnosed with Invasive Ductal Carcinoma, stage one (no bigger than a centimeter). If you have to get bad news (“You have cancer!!”), that’s pretty good news (“It’s not very big!”). A lumpectomy followed in December and further testing showed that the “margins and lymph nodes are clear.” I started daily radiation treatments in February. The worst may be over, I thought.

Then Alison called me with the stunning news that she, too, had been diagnosed with breast cancer. What are the odds, we wondered? She is at least twenty years younger than I am with the energy to match. Not that that has anything to do with it, of course. My youngest daughter was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 30, had to undergo a mastectomy and aggressive chemotherapy, so I knew age had nothing to do with it. And Alison’s mother had breast cancer 5 years ago at age 70. Even so, looks are deceiving with this illness. Alison has always exuded energy, and, selfishly, I had come to count on it. She had been so wonderful about offering to sub for me on those days when I might be too fatigued to lecture to our class. What would happen when we were both down for the count?

And so we are now on the AFGO express together. Our shared language does not always have words, but we will try. Because if there is one thing we have learned, in theory and in practice, it is this: scary stuff loses some of its power when we share it.

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Alison Trope


My turn to share the part 1 or first stage of AFGO. Get it? Yes, stage jokes…I’m already trying to mine all the breast cancer humor I can muster. That’s how I roll, or how I’ve been rolling until the week of February 15, when I not only learned that I was “HER2 positive,” but that the cancer in my left breast was at stage 2 and had moved beyond my breast into my lymph nodes. More on that later.

Judy told me about her cancer a few months ago, sometime in late November 2015. We were finalizing updates on our syllabus for the upcoming semester, and I offered to do anything I could to make the unknowns of radiation and other treatments easier by taking on Judy’s teaching, grading — whatever would help. Since the semester started and Judy began radiation a few weeks ago, things have been going smoothly. Judy may have been feeling a bit tired and distracted, but you wouldn’t know it in the classroom. She still had her spunk and sense of humor, and walked our students through the basics of news literacy.

Little did I know that, on February 5, 4 weeks into the semester (and the day after I used an SNL skit about Beyonce to illustrate the aforementioned concept of “hegemony”), things would change.

My origin story is similar to Judy’s. It was my birthday in late January. I turned 48. That very day, I learned that a close friend from middle and high school (who also happens to be my OB-GYN) was going in for a procedure to remove some abnormal tissue in her breast. It turned out to be benign. Whew.

But it also spurred me to make an appointment for a mammogram. I was about 6 months overdue for an annual check up. I had been in for a mammogram-ultrasound combo in June 2014. No big deal. In the meantime I had had a full physical and blood workup in September 2015. Totally healthy. And a “well woman” exam (not sure who came up with that nomenclature! We may be talking a lot about semantics and nomenclature here). Also totally fine. The mammogram is not something most women enjoy. Lots of handling and pushing of your body and telling you to relax and hold your breath. Not a good combination. This is the kind of appointment a lot of us put off — like a teeth cleaning. It doesn’t feel urgent. It’s a routine once a year (or now every two years if you’re over 55 and following the recommendations of the American Cancer Society).

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At 48, I’ve had about 5 mammograms in my life. They’ve all been fine. So, when I went in for a routine mammogram on February 5, I wasn’t prepared for, “there’s something suspicious” and “can you see it on the ultrasound?” Um, yeah, I can, and it’s bigger than both of my kids when they were just baby fetuses.

The next thing I knew, I was being prepped for a needle biopsy, and told to “prepare for the worst.” Ha! “You say that to all the girls, right?” Nope, he doesn’t.

I prepared and I heard. Yes, that small mass on my now very bruised left breast was cancer. This was my moment of AFGO. And through the looking glass. And down the rabbit hole. And WTF. A big pause button was pushed on my life.

But it was only the beginning of the waiting and the bad news. Cut to the chase — more biopsies, titanium clips inserted, mammograms, ultrasounds, a full body bone scan, PET CT scan (or in everyday parlance a four-hour full body tissue scan), and the adventure continues.

As it unfolds for both of us, we’ll continue to share our stories, reflect, and find meaning in this new HER2 world.

Written by

We teach Journalism and Communication (separately and together) @USCAnnenberg and write about our common experience of teaching with breast cancer.

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