It’s not always easy to laugh through hard times, especially when you know the name of what will ultimately end your life.
But Ann Silberman, a 55-year-old former high school secretary with terminal metastatic breast cancer, continues to do it. Standing up for too long causes her pain, but the upside is that her retired husband Doug now has to learn to cook for her.
“It's fair play,” she said, “I cooked for 19 years, now it's his turn!”
Thanks to drugs like Herceptin, Perjeta and Zometa, the breast cancer that spread to her liver hasn’t been growing or moving. It's good news, the likes of which she hasn’t heard in over four years. She’s been experiencing so much vitality recently that she now realizes how sick she felt before.
“I feel like I've been climbing a mountain in the fog, and I've suddenly broken through to the sunshine,” she said. “I hope I can sit here for a spell and not climb for a while.”
Right now, she's on the better side of the odds as well. Breast cancer patients with liver metastases statistically live for two to three years, and Ann will reach her third year in May.
“There does come a time—and every end-stage cancer patient understands this—when there is no more medication left; when your cancer can't be stopped,” she said.
No Pink Ribbon for Her
Ann’s a breast cancer patient, but she’s not the pink ribbon type.
Her blog, ButDoctorIHatePink.com, started as a tongue-in-cheek discussion of how she can’t stand the pink ribbon and everything it represents.
“I just wish the pink ribbon charities would change their focus and realize they are behind the times—that awareness has long been achieved and now it's time to do something concrete,” she said. “The people who support them though, are good people.”
Ann is instead funding a potential cure for cancer through her legacy. She’s putting the $1,000 prize for being voted Healthline’s Best Blog of 2013 into a college fund for one of her two sons.
Ann’s youngest son is set to graduate from high school this May. He’s using his 4.6 GPA, high-level science-based extracurricular classes, and community service to apply to elite colleges, where he plans to study biology and enter the field of medical research.
“Obviously, my cancer has affected him, but I think it will be to the benefit of society,” Ann said.
At first, Ann didn’t know if she would live to see him graduate, but that has always been her goal. Now she’s hopeful that her oldest son will get engaged to his long-time girlfriend, “which would fill my heart, I love her dearly.”
“The best news is my stepdaughter is expecting a child in March, so I will be a grandma, something I didn't think I'd live to see!” she said.
It All Started With a Lump and a Blog
Not only did Ann win this year’s Healthline blog contest, she won last year's as well, thanks to the support of her fans.
“I think that the secret to my success is that my blog is a truthful first hand account of a life lived with cancer," she said. "My readers either themselves have had cancer or have had loved ones with it, so the subject touches many. I often hear that my descriptions have helped people who were afraid know what is to come, and also helped them understand what a loved-one is experiencing."
"I also think the fact that I use humor helps—it demystifies the whole cancer experience for everybody and makes it less frightening," she added. "If you can laugh about something it doesn't seem quite so awful.”
Beginning with her appropriately titled first post “What the heck is that?” in 2009, Ann has written more than 500 posts about her experience, mixing humor in with stark realities. Her slogan says it all: “Terminal cancer can be funny. Just not for very long.”
“I've written about death and dying, but I mostly focus on my acceptance of that as part of the human condition,” she said. “For most writers, I think when you write something you sort it out. Whatever you are writing about starts as an idea but then you find the truth when fleshing it out in words.”
Ann wanted to congratulate her fellow blog contestant, MariaMindBodyHealth.com, for running such a close race. “I have to say though, she's all about health but she nearly gave me a heart attack at the end with how close the competition was!”
Writing as a Complementary Therapy
The blog has helped Ann sort through complex emotions and the strangeness of uncertainty. It’s been as much a part of her therapy as any drug or procedure.
“When I first started, I used humor and that changed the experience for me. I would have an unknown test or treatment, and I'd be so busy looking for something amusing or interesting to relate to my audience that I didn't have time to be scared or worried,” she said. “Finding that funny thing for my readers changed the experience for me; it is amazing how calming laughter can be.”
Ann recommends that anyone going through trauma, medical or not, write about it.
“Nobody has to go as public as I have—you can use a good old-fashioned journal, or even blog but use tools to only allow your friends to read it,” she said. “I do believe that doing something creative—writing, art, whatever it may be—can help one cope.”
When Ann began writing her blog—before she learned that her cancer was terminal—she was in her last job before retirement. She cautions others to be careful about what they put online because future employers and others can learn about your illness.
“I still keep some things private. My family is the most important thing in the world to me, but I don't write about them as much as I would like to as I don't want to bring them in where they don't want to be,” she said. “My kids’ last names are different than mine, which helps with privacy, although I'm sure the NSA knows that.”
Photo courtesy of Anastasia Kuba.