A Good Place
Having survived two bouts with cancer, Christine Shields Corrigan focuses on the future.
by Bill Donahue

Stories have long sustained Christine Shields Corrigan, nearly as vital as water and oxygen. She’s always been a voracious reader, and she has long kept a travel journal to document the things she’s seen and experienced along the way. Her love of words also guided her through each branch of her career, first as an attorney, and then as a writer and teacher of creative nonfiction. 
A self-described “memory keeper,” Corrigan has chosen to share some of her most intimate memories in Again: Surviving Cancer Twice with Love and Lists, a new memoir about her two bouts with cancer—Hodgkin’s lymphoma as a 14-year-old, and breast cancer as a 50-year-old. It’s a beautifully written book, reading much like a novel, in which she details the realities of receiving an upending diagnosis, enduring treatment, and coming out the other side of “the dark forest,” as she calls it. Along the way, she navigates the unfamiliar terrain with humor, horror, and honesty. Each chapter begins with a pithy to-do list corresponding to different phases of her journey; each list mixes everyday chores with the jarring duties of someone mired in a fight with a potentially lethal disease.
“I wrote the book primarily to help others,” Corrigan says. “I’m a book person, so I wasn’t going to Google breast cancer to death. I didn’t want to be a WebMD oncologist. I wanted to read about other people’s experiences. There are plenty of cancer memoirs, a lot of them written by people who died. … I wanted [my story] to be very honest. I wanted to have rawness on the page, which I’ve never really seen in other cancer memoirs—this is the reality.” 
Besides going through the surgery and corresponding treatments, Corrigan sheds light on other issues faced by those with a cancer diagnosis, such as sharing the news with family members, dealing with chemotherapy-induced hair loss, and shopping for lingerie after a mastectomy and breast reconstruction. She also explores the unresolved thoughts and feelings stemming from her first bout with “the Beast,” when she was a teenager.
“I didn’t want to write a book along the lines of ‘life is short, eat dessert first,’” she adds. “Writing it gave me the grace to forgive my parents and let that hurt go. Being a parent, I can now understand where my parents’ heads were probably at. The catharsis was a nice add on.” 
Although she’s a “born-and-bred New Yorker,” Corrigan has ties to the Philadelphia area, dating back to her college years, when she sculled down the Schuylkill River for her school’s rowing team. We spoke with her about cancer’s physical and emotional toll, how she overcame the fear of not knowing, and what her future holds.

Why did you want to share your story in such a public way?
The book was supposed to be a list. That was the genesis. It was the summer of 2016, at the end of a support-group meeting, when I was about three quarters of the way through my treatment and surgery. My surgical nurse navigator saw me and said, “Hey, would you mind putting together a list of things that might help others that I could share with patients?” After recovering from surgery, I had time on my hands and the Irish Catholic guilt got the better of me. What started out as a list ended up as 10 short essays. The story grew from there.

A close friend of mine likened her fight with breast cancer to training for an Ironman, in that it consumes every part of you. You become someone else. You were barely a teenager when you received your first cancer diagnosis. How did that shape you? 
I went through my treatment, and when it was over it was right back to normal life. I felt a little robbed of the first part of my sophomore year, but I was really driven to do what I wanted to do. Looking back, I was probably trying to run away from the experience, and that came back to bite me on the butt.  

You said in the book that you didn’t want to speak about it, because doing so might “give power to the Beast” to return one day. Was the specter of cancer always in the back of your mind, or did you think that was one chapter in your life, since closed? 
It was there, something I never wanted to talk about it. I put it in a box and taped it closed. Other than listing it in my medical history [when going to the doctor], I never really wanted to talk about it. I had a lot of unresolved fear, but it was almost a defensive thing, like magical thinking, where if you don’t speak the thing, it can’t harm you—but in fact it can.   

Was the second diagnosis different, emotionally and otherwise? I imagine anger must have been the prevailing emotion, aside from fear.
It is a process of making peace with the undesirable, a Zen Buddhist concept. To me, I got to the point where I could either live my life to the fullest, enjoying as much of this time on Earth as I’m given, or I could live in terror and worry. I didn’t want to live like that. I did that for a year, wrestling with all this internal anxiety, not being able to know what’s going to happen or how to control it. My oncologist, a brilliant, faith-filled person, said to me, “You can’t worry about that which is not in your hands.” Basically, you have to let this go, which is hard to do. There are days I still struggle, like if I have a doctor’s appointment coming up, but I’m not going to live my life in fear. I decided my word for this year was fearless, even before COVID happened. It’s a reminder to not just be brave but also to fear less. 

I imagine one of the hardest parts of getting a cancer diagnosis is what your brain does to you in the process. 
What we do to ourselves internally is often worse than what’s happening with our bodies. Nothing about cancer is fun. The physical transformation you go through, it all sucks. People talk about cancer treatment as a marathon, not a sprint. It’s a continual marathon. The first year after treatment, I was really anxious. I got into therapy, and you work through that stuff, but it lingers in the back of the mind. Think about COVID-19. People are so afraid of the virus, and that fear clouds our judgment. With something like cancer, what are you afraid of? You’re afraid of dying, and you have to look it in the face. We can all have that magical thinking, hoping we’ll die at 97 with our family around us, but when you’re faced with a potentially deadly disease, you have to own that in a way. That’s a piece of survivorship most people don’t understand, the fact that you have to live in this altered existence. 

Where are you now in terms of your health? 
My health is awesome. I had my six-month checkup a few months ago, I exercise every day, and I check in with my [psychologist] every few months, whenever I need him. Not long ago he said, “You’re the happiest patient I’ve spoken to.” I’m in a good place.

Ready for Battle
Christine Shields Corrigan’s memoir provides an exhaustive list of resources for individuals dealing with a cancer diagnosis—everything from nipple tattoo artists and bras for reconstructed breasts to books and products that can help to ease the side effects of treatment. Likewise, the Philadelphia area boasts a number of resources to help individuals (and their families) move forward following a cancer diagnosis. This includes the many excellent health systems that have earned a reputation for providing comprehensive and compassionate care in treating cancers of every sort.

Abramson Cancer Center of Penn Medicine
Multiple area locations

Cancer Treatment Centers of America

Capital Health Cancer Center
Hopewell, N.J.

Charles A. and Betty Bott Cancer Center at Holy Redeemer Hospital 

Doylestown Health Cancer Institute

Einstein Healthcare Network
Multiple area locations

Fox Chase Cancer Center
Multiple area locations

Main Line Health Cancer Centers
Multiple area locations

Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center at Abington – Jefferson Health Asplundh Cancer Pavilion

St. Mary Medical Center

Suburban Community Hospital

The Fight Doesn’t End
Dealing with cancer is difficult enough in normal times. COVID-19 has added another layer of complexity, in part because the pandemic has made some people fearful of seeking out medical care. In addition, nonprofit organizations devoted to helping people affected by the disease have seen shortfalls in funding. The American Cancer Society has had to reduce its investment in cancer research by 50 percent in part because of impediments to fundraising activities, according to Paula Green, executive director of the American Cancer Society of Greater Philadelphia.
“It’s the lowest investment this century, really devastating,” Green says. “Our budget has been reduced by $200 million this year—from $700 million to $500 million—so we need everyone’s help. Even though we’ve been forced to make cuts, our programs are still continuing.”
COVID-19 may have disrupted the Relay for Life, one of ACS’s most important countrywide fundraising events, but Green says the organization has adapted by launching a number of virtual events or socially distanced gatherings. She cites three “bright spots” in ACS’s efforts to raise funds and awareness to fight breast cancer: Coaches vs. Cancer Off the Court, which received much-needed exposure through a partnership with NBC10; Making Strides Against Breast Cancer, a network of walks to unite communities and raise funds for breast cancer research; and the Real Men Wear Pink campaign, enlisting the likes of Merrill Reese, Vai Sikahema, and other community leaders to raise awareness and money through their professional networks.
“This year, the American Cancer Society estimates that 280,000 Americans will be diagnosed with breast cancer,” Green adds. “In Pennsylvania, that number is 12,000. We still have a lot of work to do.”
She welcomes area residents to connect with ACS to see how they can get involved. She also welcomes donations by calling (800) 227-2345 or visiting cancer.org.
“The fight doesn’t end,” she adds. “The American Cancer Society is still going to be here, fighting for a world without cancer. To get there we need everyone to step up and be bold, to come together now more than ever.”

Photograph by Celestina Ando

Published (and copyrighted) in Suburban Life magazine, October 2020.