by Reverend Amy Whitcomb Slemmer ’86
About a year ago, I was biking toward the Long Wharf commuter boat, having left myself plenty of time to make it from my office in Boston’s Fenway area to the 6:40 ferry, when I felt a sharp twinge on my left side. No time to stop and evaluate. While I didn’t have to approximate Tour de France speed, I did have to pedal at a decent pace to find myself on the right side of the boat’s departure gate. With the familiar thunderous clap of my bike tires against the metal dock ramp announcing my arrival, the MBTA deckhand welcomed me and commented that I had cut it close (commenting on whether I was the last to board or nearly the last to board is my expected evening greeting, which is to say that the commuter boats are the absolute best part of the T’s transportation system! A reflection for another time).
Once on board, I did not give my back or discomfort another thought until a few days later when the discomfort was repeated. My self-diagnosis was that I was carrying too much stuff in my backpack, so I tried to sort out a way to leave my heavy laptop at home or at the office, rather than schlep it back and forth. This alleviated some of the sharper twinges, but the backache continued. I revised my diagnosis as a second bout of sciatica. I treated it gingerly, stretched, alternated Advil and Tylenol, and generally ignored the continuing discomfort.
On Monday, August 8 my employer, Fenway Community Health Center, had to close our building because the water pressure would not support our clinical needs. A colleague suggested that with this found time, I should take myself across the street to the doctor to investigate my sciatica and to see if there was something that could be done, or—as I thought of the advice—to have a professional endorsement of my medical guess.
Having not been to the doctor throughout COVID, I found myself being tested and scanned and poked and prodded. I didn’t know my doctors, as I had changed plans, and my previous PCP had left the practice. I had no relationship with this crew, but appreciated that they were attentive and listened to my hypotheses and were especially invested in my being able to continue being a safe and fierce bike-commuter, and from the boat dock in my home town to my house. This was part of my sacred time that allowed me to arrive at work buoyed by endorphins and return me home in a pretty great mood.
The first set of tests were scheduled in pursuit of a possible kidney stone. The blood tests and scans with contrast were searching for tumors and tumor markers. I made the first set of appointments with some difficulty because it was summer and schedules were tight. I planned each to fit into a busy work week and I went alone. The results for each became more and more scary, so for the second round of confirmatory imaging I went to see my dear classmate Angela Rose Heffernan Toussaint and told her what was happening.
My favorite part of letting her into the process was her declaration that “ummmmm, we didn’t sign up for THIS!” which made us howl with laughter, and became a mantra as the crummy news accumulated. Angela was with me when the high contrast imaging confirmed a mass and the first time the diagnosis of ovarian cancer was uttered. I sobbed audibly, and she held my hand. We had both laughed about the others in the waiting room who were clearly at the office to get high contrast images of the babies they were carrying. We laughed when we knew I would be asked if there was any possibility that I was pregnant – that ship had sailed for the class of ‘86! Even after the awful imaging outcome, the two of us paused to write glowing comment cards because we were raised that way, AND the care I’d received for the appointment was outstanding.
My oncologist was awesome—a great surgeon with limited bedside manner, who kindly and compassionately would not confirm or call the mass cancer or speculate on staging until it was removed. I scheduled surgery, which was a scary and laborious process—doctors take vacations, too! And I began to share the diagnosis with people at work, at church, and in my life. I’m blessed to have a family that sprang into action, and I’m also challenged to be taking care of my ailing mother. She went to live with my sister while the arrangements were made for my surgery, chemo, and follow up.
Angela reached out to other classmates, who created the most incredibly supportive text chain. I knew that I would need a playlist—music to cheer me up and get me through. Members of the class of ‘86 introduced me to Spotify with a play list called Amy’s “Girl, You Got This”—with tons of music from our college dancing days. I received cards and well-wishes from classmates I hadn’t heard from since graduation. Each time I opened and read the kindness in each envelope I was grateful and felt connected to classmates who had also struggled with health issues, or were grieving the loss of spouses, parents, or children. Our Wheaton classmates generously shared their own struggles while wishing me well.
Beth Fitzgibbons Fleming ’86 met me for Thai food, and dazzled me by ordering in Thai and reminded me about her time in the Peace Corps. She and my dearest person James worked together to find additional care and a possible respite setting for my mother, whose Alzheimer’s was becoming pronounced enough that, each time I visited her, it was always news to her that I was sick.
My surgery last September was successful. The biopsies were clear and the ovarian cancer was staged 1A, with a tumor grade of 3. These are great numbers that place my likelihood of a long and full life way above the average for ovarian cancer—because we caught it early. The stage and grade also meant that I spent five months getting to know the intricacies and discomforts of chemo therapy.
Again, the Class of ‘86 was absolutely amazing! I don’t know how the fundraising was done, but Beth gave me a Dana Farber Care Card that was loaded with cash that I could use for acupuncture and massage to enhance my healing and minimize my symptoms. I’ll confess that I would not have made those investments on my own AND that every time I finished an acupuncture treatment or massage I both felt better and was assured that I would be cured! I would leave the Zakim Center and head back to work feeling refreshed and hopeful.
There is no bell to ring at my treatment center, but I felt triumphant after my final chemo session. They were long and exhausting and fell into a familiar rhythm: Monday Chemo…Tuesday-into-Wednesday Steroid High (I would work 20-24 hours straight because of the drugs)…Wednesday-into-Thursday, I’d begin to feel awful…and then came Face-Down-Friday, when I would be unable to move a muscle, feeling I’d faint if I tried to climb stairs or do anything strenuous. I was blessed to have my sister’s good care and a friend from California who made the pilgrimage to provide care, as did her husband on a separate occasion. I could not have gotten through the chemo series without them. I introduced them to my awesome Spotify list, and each one commented that they didn’t imagine their college classmates would have made the same effort.
There is a special bond and connection that we have as Wheaton Class of ‘86 classmates. A bunch of us (I was!) were pretty angry with the coed decision, AND our connection has transcended that. As an Episcopal Priest (and a lawyer—i.e., two-thirds of a bar joke), I often include classmates in my prayers and these days I am connected to them with prayers of gratitude. I cannot overstate how warm and glad the cards and good wishes made me feel. To know that there is a connection with women in the world doing amazing things, or unheralded things—it is a privilege to be among them, and I am the grateful recipient of their heartwarming efforts.
So when people tell me they don’t know what to do about a friend who has a scary health diagnosis, I tell them the story of the Class of ‘86. Make the friend a playlist. Subsidize some care that the friend wouldn’t otherwise access. Send the friend a note or give her a call. You can’t cure the diagnosis, but you can make the journey lighter by sharing it.
Thank you Class of ‘86. Thank you Angela Rose Heffernan Toussaint, Allison Lee Thornton Newman, Jennifer Ann Richards, Pamela Goddard, Julia Grammar, and Beth (Betty) Fitzgibbons Fleming and to Kris Kornmeier (Wheaton Class of ‘74) who has blazed the long-term survivor’s path and has stuck with me through thick and thin. To each of you who sent a card, made a call, or joined me with kind thoughts and prayers—THANK YOU. That is how you support and make a difference for someone who has cancer. Thank you, Class of ‘86 for making a difference! I’m so grateful and privileged to be your classmate.
With Love—The Reverend Amy Whitcomb Slemmer, Esq.
PS: If you are around Boston this summer and are interested attending church services in an historic setting, I’m serving and celebrating at Old North Church Sunday July 30th, August 6th,and August 13th. I would love to see you. It would be another gift to be able to offer communion to the Class of ‘86 and members of the Wheaton community.
The Reverend Amy Whitcomb Slemmer, Esq. Chief Compliance Officer and Executive Vice President for Government Relations and Community Engagement, Fenway Community Health Center. Member of the Diocesan Constitution and Cannons Committee, Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts.