Farwell to a truth-teller

I learned this week that Peg Tyndell had died of cancer on June 26.

My thoughts rushed back a quarter of a century to a brisk winter day when I went to a local women’s health clinic with Peg, a reporter for The Altamont Enterprise.

She was determined to show women, our readers, what a mammogram was like.

It was the force of her will that led me to work on a series of stories with her about mammography. Peg insisted on pictures and volunteered to pose herself.

So there we were at the clinic, Peg calm in her hospital gown and me clutching a high-quality borrowed camera I wasn’t quite sure how to use.

I remember beads of sweat dripping from my face onto the camera as I worked to get informative yet tasteful pictures.

Peg was unflappable. She had the courage of her convictions.

Later, she was recognized with a statewide award for health coverage from the New York Press Association for the series on mammography. But it wasn’t glory Peg was after; she wanted to inform.

It started with a column she wrote about being told, in 1984, she had a lump in her breast.

“I’m dumbstruck and numb,” she wrote in her usual frank style. “I can’t think of any questions, unusual for someone who is referred to by her husband as motor-mouth….”

This was at a time when people didn’t talk openly about breast cancer. “I never heard anyone speak about mammography or having it done,” Peg wrote.

She set out to change that. Aside from the pictures she insisted on, the series included information on everything from costs to survival rates.

Most important, Peg included details of what it felt like to be a patient. She described getting a mammogram this way: “It’s a machine that you not only stand next to but stand into.” As the technician explained what she was doing, Peg wrote, “It didn’t erase the shock of seeing it happen. I couldn’t believe the breast could be squished that far down.”

Beyond what it felt like physically, Peg described what it felt like emotionally to be told she had a lump in her breast. “I thought: Is it cancer?”

And, then, referring to her husband and her children — her son, then 17, and her daughter, then 20 — she asked, “How will I tell Gary and the kids? Am I dying?…Should I call Mom? No, don’t worry her, too. Can I deal with cancer? I’m only 43. I’m too young to die. Oh, yeah?”

Peg concluded other women had quietly been through similar experiences and wrote, “The consensus was that most women, at one time or another, have a lump. The important thing is to do something about it.  There’s nothing to fear but the fear. Just have at it and get on with your life.”

And that is what she did. She got on with her life.

Her daughter, Meg Wyanski, this week described her mother’s vibrant embrace of life. Whether swimming or singing, thirsting for knowledge or helping a stranger, she gave it her all.

In 2008, twenty-four years after the lump she had written about, Peg was diagnosed with breast cancer, her daughter said. She went through a “full-attack process” with a double mastectomy, chemotherapy, and radiation.

“She had been cancer-free but it came back in the bones of her neck this February,” said her daughter.

“Cancer is a nasty, nasty thing and she was just so graceful,” said her daughter. “It was not something she would choose, but she thought, ‘Maybe I’ll help others.’”

Not long before her death, when she was in Ellis Hospital, her daughter said, “She thought about writing a book to let others benefit.”  The book would let doctors know how people feel as they face cancer, what they hear when told of their diagnoses or about various aspects of their treatment. From it, doctors could learn how to better communicate with their patients.

That was Peg — always thinking of others. And wanting to put what she had been through in to words in order to further understanding.

That’s what she did back when I knew her, when she wrote for The Enterprise. Peg was willing to expose herself — literally as well as figuratively — for the sake of knowledge. She had true grit and true grace.