August 1, 2011 leonard slatkin

July was not a month for music, at least as far as I was concerned.

Upon returning from South America, it was my job to take care of Cindy, who would be undergoing a double mastectomy at the beginning of the month. There were numerous decisions to be made, all of them difficult. One of the most important things we discovered throughout this process was how many people either had undergone some form of the cancer or knew someone who did. Getting information was not so problematic.

It is impossible to imagine the emotional stress on any woman undergoing the procedure. Even facing it bravely does not diminish the importance of physical as well as emotional loss. It is not just a question of femininity, but rather of how you look at yourself every time you are in front of a mirror, putting on a blouse or just going out in public. Everyone else you speak with understands and seems to accept the change, but it does not diminish the sense of hurt you feel.

With Cindy, this was an unexpected turn. No history of cancer on either side of her family and no real indication that anything was wrong. The mammogram that was performed less that half a year prior to this discovery, showed no abnormalities. It was during a routine check –up that her doctor noticed something irregular. Tests were done and the waiting was unbearable. It was in the car, on the way back from a French lesson when we heard the words that confirmed the worst.

Over the course of four weeks, everything had to be decided. One breast removed or two, reconstruction or not, when and how. You can follow her own journal by going to She writes eloquently and honestly about herself and this battle.

Having gone through my own fight with prostate cancer and a heart attack, I could certainly understand dealing with a potential life-threatening disease. My afflictions were on the inside, where no one could see them. Even though there are numerous methods of restoring the looks, it will never be the same for a woman.

While I was away, it seemed like a good idea to look up how the partner or significant other deals with a mastectomy. There is not a lot written on the subject, so the following are just some observations of how the two of us have managed to cope. Cindy was there for me when I had my coronary, making things easier for me simply by knowing that my companion and friend was near. Nothing else matters. When it comes to health and family, everything else comes in second place.

It seems foolish and maybe too simple, but it is imperative that you go to as many consultations together with the various doctors as possible. If you cannot, make sure that you get the information and updates as quickly as you can. Discuss them in an open and direct way. Do not try to cover up the fact that this is life-altering surgery.

Being tactile is not usually my way of expressing emotion. After all, when I am on stage, I am the one person who is not physically producing a sound. Now it was incumbent on me to know exactly when a touch, hug or hand clasp was needed. It was not a matter of either sympathy or empathy. The partner cannot know what is in the mind or heart of the other, as much as you might talk about it.

There was an overwhelming feeling of helplessness when I watched Cindy being wheeled on the gurney, tubes poking out and drugs kicking in. Minutes become hours. As much as the surgical team tried to reassure us that this is now a commonplace procedure, nothing can truly prepare you for what it will be like.

After three hours, the chief surgeon came out to tell me that all had gone well, but they had discovered some cancer in one sentinel lymph node. At the time, I thought she had said that two were removed. It sounded like recovery would be relatively simple. The plastic surgeon was busy starting his work of repair.

The entire procedure took about five hours. I was right there when Cindy woke up and stayed with her as long as possible. The next day, when the doctors came to visit, they told us that eleven nodes had been taken out, just to be safe. The patient was already up and about, although a bit unsteady. It was not possible to see the area where the operation occurred, and I don’t think I would have been ready for that anyway.

Just two nights in the hospital and Cindy came home. There was a nurse who stayed with us for the first eight hours, going through what needed to be done. There were devices that needed to be drained, bathing would be a bit tricky and more than likely side effects from both the anesthesia and the drugs. Even though I had learned what to do, Cindy wanted to take care of as much as she possibly could on her own. Recovery mode was getting into high gear.

I continued to take the trips downtown to see the doctors. When the dressings had finally been removed, it was time to see what it all looked like. It is not possible to be prepared for this. You can look at all the pictures in the world, but when it is the person you share your life with, the thousand words disappear. As often as you have said and thought that physical appearance does not matter, it still is a tremendous shock. We were lucky. Everything had gone smoothly and although there was not much tissue left, all I could think about was that Cindy was going to be just fine. It seems obvious but it is truly the internal self that is the key to the beauty of the soul.

We got back into a normal routine, although limited due to the various medical appointments Cindy had to keep. When she first went out publicly, it was clear after just an hour that fatigue was setting in. Future trips would ease her back into the social whirl more gradually. At no point did I feel the need to get back on the podium. It was so much more gratifying just to be around and hope that I might have a positive impact on the recovery.

As we got to the latter stages of the month, the big question awaiting was whether chemotherapy and/or radiation would take place. We knew that there was to be a meeting of the “Tumor Board”, at which time the various medical personnel working on Cindy’s case would review all the test results and offer their opinion. Plans and itineraries needed to be set up, however, and so we assumed that some form of treatment would occur.

What has changed?

Not quite as much as I expected. Our relationship has grown stronger. Having to deal with adversity has increased the level of candor between Cindy and me. This is the best advice I can offer. Don’t cover up your feelings, even if you believe it is helping the afflicted partner. It is not.

A little over twenty-four hours before the surgery, I prepared a dinner for the two of us. It was then that I asked Cindy to marry me. There was no ring, no getting down on one knee and no date set. It was just a natural outgrowth of who we are and what we mean to each other. Having something to look forward to is an elixir that can take away many aches and pains.

Hopefully August puts us on a more regular track. I will resume conducting with dates in Santa Barbara, Aspen and Los Angeles. After that, it will be off to Lyon to begin a new chapter in my life.

Speaking of chapters, I have managed to complete most of the book I have been writing for the past couple years. Now starts the laborious exercise of editing. There is no release date yet, but my guess is sometime early next year.

In the meantime, it seems fitting to leave you with two love poems. These were recorded in the late 50’s with Andy Griffith, and feature the Hollywood String Quartet. Also heard are clarinetist Mitchell Lurie, saxophonist Plas Johnson and my uncle, pianist Victor Aller. No one knows why these tracks were made but they are truly unique.

See you next month,