From Terror to club termina

It’s October, and Breast Cancer Awareness Month. And as a survivor, I have a lot to say about it.

I was in my thirties when I realized I was genetically disposed to this disease. My mother had it, and she had taken massive hormones to give birth to me. At 33, I asked my doctor for a mammogram, but I was told: I wasn’t old enough—not just for the x-ray, not to get Breast Cancer.

The doctor told me to palpate my breasts every month instead to find any unwanted visitors in them. (Rough translation: I had to rub my hand in circles over my breast with one arm over my head). 

It was too scary. I went back to the doctor and every three months, he did the heavy lifting for me. 

One day, with his hand on my right breast, he said: “Oh.” Terror. That’s the word that will cover the rest of this. That’s immediately what I felt. 

Terror: A needle biopsy that found a benign cyst on top of a malignancy. I told myself the cyst had come to help me—after all, it was what the doctor noticed while the tumor was too small, but young like me, and in good shape. 

Terror: One scan before surgery. I tried to talk to the nurses so they would tell me that I was okay. They can’t do that.

Terror: The biopsy results. Setting up surgery and radiation. Being in my thirties and thankful that there was no chemo.

Terror: A new chemo is developed that’s not yet FDA approved but looks like a sure fire cure, which sounds so sweet compared to “remission.”

Terror: Things did not go as well for two of my girlfriends, Bessie and Sigrid, who were diagnosed when I was. Neither of them would survive.

When I lost them, terror turned to something I cannot describe—but trust me, terror was better. I went to the funerals. I found a way to cry for them every day. But I was lost. The world felt like the wrong planet for me. Then a friend suggested I go to a Writer’s Bootcamp that changed my life.

I starting writing about the terror and worse. I wrote a piece, “Life and Death: The Vaudeville Show,” for my class. Los Angeles Theater Center (LATC) went on to produce it. We had a full band, and two characters, you can guess who they were—and we toured Cuba as part of an event dedicated to stories of death, where the audiences stood and hollered after every performance. The stage had open flames at the edge instead of lights. I wondered if the cheering was because I had not caught fire during “Live and Let Live” my solo in the show. 

On the flight home, I envisioned a musical about women who had died of breast cancer and were sent to a nightclub in the sky. “club termina” was my chance to honor Sigrid and Bessie with characters who performed their stories. The piece was full of humor, dotted with bawdy musical numbers. There’s no other way to get through it, in my mind. But still every night, somebody left the theatre barely containing their sobs as they ran out.

Before that diagnosis, before the terror, before what was worse, I thought I wanted to be an actress. I had come to Los Angeles to find my way to the stage, to the screen—but then cancer showed me the power of shared stories, the power of what I had survived, the power of talking about something so many of us struggle with in silence. 

My diagnosis spun my entire life around. And “club termina” led me to all that came next—to co-founding a theatre company and writing and producing plays that expanded the canon of stories that women could see, hear, and tell; to feminist documentaries and essays and webseries; to The Road Not Taken, and to learning to walk it in my own life. 

I have been telling stories—the stories I lived and the stories I longed for—ever since. Because life is too short not to.

One thought on “From Terror to club termina

  1. Thank you so much for sharing your story here, Susan Rubin…I know how much your stories help others. It takes courage and vulnerability to share one’s personal revelations…and you have both. With wonder, Indira


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