Dear Thing About Cancer Readers: I thought it was about time to give you some background—the history of my cancer diagnoses for one thing, and some of my experiences with treatment. This is the start of it. I also plan to post a page outlining my treatments for those of you who have had comparable breast cancer experiences and medical folks to follow along, but that might take a while. As usual (AKA for the second time), if you’re looking for a quick update on my latest condition, scroll down to the bottom of this post and look for more italics.
It was six years ago. May 5, 2013, to be exact. A Sunday.
I was 53 years old.
Dreamboat and I had been married for a little less than a year, and I was packing for our anniversary trip. To France—leaving the next day. I was making final decisions about what to bring; trying on clothes.
Upstairs in our house, the closest thing we had to a full-length mirror was the one over the master bathroom sink. If I stood the right distance from that mirror, I could see my reflection from head to thigh—good enough. A large skylight flooded the bathroom with the ivory glow of late morning sun.
I can picture myself so clearly, standing in that bathroom, in that light. My image centered in the mirror’s gilt frame.
What was I trying on just then? It might have been a less-than-favorite pair of pants. You’re always thinking that they just need the proper locale to fit you better, right? They might sag in the butt when you walk around your hometown but fit perfectly in France. (That’s a thing, seriously—different air quality. Uh, terroir.) Anyway, maybe it was a blouse I was trying on. One that didn’t wrinkle (good) but didn’t show off my flat stomach either (BAD).
Whatever I was trying on, trying to decide, trying to see—to see it, I turned sideways.
I turned sideways and what I saw was this thing above my left breast. This bump.
Dreamboat bellowed from the bottom of the stairs, “Hey, Baby. Wanna walk into town for lunch’”?
I look back on that moment and think Dreamboat’s growling stomach must have roused him from a nap on the couch. At the time, though, I didn’t wonder where Dreamboat had been or where he was going.
“Lunch,” went through my mind. I stared into the mirror and the bump above my left breast stared back. “What was ‘lunch?’”
“We can finish packing later,” Dreamboat called. Dreamboat is not a man to scale a set of stairs unnecessarily.
Was it a bump? A bulge? I raised my right hand and pressed my index and middle fingers against the… protrusion? It was hard, like an almond in its shell half-buried under my skin. A growth. Inside of me. If it was can_ _ _, they would call it a tu_ _ _. Or, in the breast, they might call it a lum_.
A lump. “In my breast,” I thought. “I. Have. A. Lump.”
“Baby? Can you hear me up there? If you’re having too much fun, or you’re not ready to eat, I can bring something back for you.”
I reconnected: lunch was food; Dreamboat was hungry. If he left, it would just be me and my left breast lump. In a few steps, I was at the top of the stairs.
“I’m coming,” I said. Dreamboat smiled up at me, then he bent to tie his shoelaces. The man walks around the house, or his office, all day long with his shoes untied. Only ties them for a major walk. Never trips. I went into the bedroom, snatched a bulky scarf from a suitcase, and tied it around my neck.
So, off we went. To lunch that day and home again. To tackling the packing. To loading the suitcases in the car that night and driving to the airport the next morning. To the airplanes, one after another. And to France for two weeks.
I didn’t say a word about the… lump.
I thought about the lump. Strolling among ancient ruins, through smart little villages (in the Lot Valley); at breakfast in our favorite B&B (that one in Albi); standing on the Champs-Élysées median while Dreamboat took a picture of me (with, in the background, the Arc de Triomphe); eating lunch at the top of the Tour Eiffel—in my mind, I kept going to that square of bathroom, turning fucking sideways so I would never be able to un-see what was there, to un-know what I suspected.
I was home again and back to the office for a week of putting out certain fires here and kindling fires under certain people there (such as you do when you’re a boss and very important, and you have been on, of all things, a two-week vacation). Then, one afternoon, the sun through my office windows finally overcame the cold from our building’s hyper air-conditioning system, and as I shrugged off my blazer, my hand brushed against… that something, and once again, I was in the damn bathroom, looking in the damn mirror, turning the damn sideways, and I finally said the damn words: “Will you all excuse me for a minute? I need to make a phone call.”
“Hey, Baby,” I said to Dreamboat on the phone. We seem always to start the conversation this way, whether the topic is lunch or a lump. “We need a favor.”
Though things may seem to the contrary sometimes on this blog, Dreamboat and I harbor no prejudice against doctors. In fact, some of our best friends are doctors. Doctors were Dreamboat’s best men at our wedding. One of those doctors, let’s call him Dr. Friend, pulled all the strings he needed to pull toward the end of May 2013, to get Dreamboat’s wife (me) scheduled for a mammogram the Wednesday after Memorial Day. Dr. Friend was and is the same Dr. Friend who, after a companionable restaurant dinner on the night I met him, whispered to me that he and his posse loved their pal, Dreamboat, AND by the way, if I hurt Dreamboat, he (Dr. Friend) and his posse would have me killed. Dr. Friend is a tall, reasonably nice-looking guy with a facial tic that makes him blink a lot. Blink, blink, “I’ll have you [blink, blink, blink] killed.” Blink. You gotta love a guy like that. And I do.
Was Dreamboat mad I hadn’t told him about the lump? No. Probably because I didn’t tell him I had known about the lump since before we went to France. What I told him was, “Hey, Baby. We need a favor. I noticed this thing and it’s kind of scary. Can you ask one of the guys to get me in for a mammogram ASAP?” Because once I wanted to know what the thing was for real, I wanted to know now. And because I have been known to exercise my unearned and unfair upper-middle-class white-lady entitlement. (Not without guilt, if that helps. No, I know. It doesn’t help.) Oh, and because sometimes (in the past) I have lied to/saved the whole truth from Dreamboat when the truth was not necessary + convenient + painless. (Like you never did the same thing with your significant other. Am I right?) Dreamboat will find out that I took the mystery of the lump on our trip to France around the time that you find out that I took the mystery of the lump on Dreamboat’s and my trip to France.
(Hey, Baby. Let’s talk about it later, okay?)
I had the mammogram that Wednesday after Memorial Day, then Dr. Friend called to say the radiologist wanted me back on Friday, for an ultrasound and a biopsy. The mammogram had revealed that the lump above my left breast had spicules, which could, Dr. Friend told me, be associated with breast cancer, but could also be scar tissue. Was I ever injured…? “There? No.” I should have the ultrasound and biopsy.
It might not be cancer. Dr. Friend said so and so did the Internet. Maybe it was nothing: a cyst, a fibroadenoma (yes, I had found pockets of Wi-Fi on our trip, in the middle of the French night, while my husband made sleep sounds beside me). Even though my daughter, Progeny, calls me Ms. Plan B (not because of the contraceptive but for the same principle underlying the contraceptive: I generally assume any sunshiny/star-shiny Plan A is going to fail or be forgotten, so I generally have a Plan B at the ready), still I know how to look on the positive side. I told myself that just because my maternal great-grandmother had breast cancer and my maternal grandmother had breast cancer and my own mother died too young from brain cancer to know if she would ever get breast cancer, and though I had always suspected that someday I would get breast cancer—none of that meant that this thing in my left breast was breast cancer.
It was breast cancer.
It was the afternoon of Monday, June 3, 2013, when Dr. Friend called to tell me. Dreamboat and I were lying on our couch in a pool of emotional exhaustion, worry, sick leave, and afternoon sunshine, when my cellphone rang. Seeing that it was his buddy Dr. Friend on the phone, Dreamboat answered. But Dr. Friend wouldn’t give this diagnosis to his buddy. Dr. Friend insisted on talking to me. So professional: it could only be bad news.
Dr. Friend sighed into my ear and I pictured him at his desk (where Dreamboat and I had shared the occasional lunch with him), in his white coat, blinking and wishing he could be doing anything else. Oh, and have I mentioned that Dr. Friend has a lisp? “Dearie,” he began. “I’m tho thorry to have to tell you thith.”
The cancer diagnosis was followed by an MRI, which led to a second biopsy of a nearly hidden, very tiny, growth deep inside my right breast. I had another ultrasound and another biopsy and appointments Dr. Friend made for me with the best surgeon and the best oncologist and the best plastic surgeon he knew. Then I had a bilateral mastectomy with partial reconstruction (temporary implants) and chemotherapy and other treatments and terrors I will tell you about later.
But let’s get back to the day I received my first cancer diagnosis. “My dear, you have breath-t can-ther,” Dr. Friend said in his deep, kind voice, and his comical lisp.
Did you think Ms. Plan B, with her ready-at-all-times-for-bad-news attitude and her widely recognized dry wit, might make a joke and take this first can-ther diagnothith in stride?
She did not. I did not.
I thought about how I would tell my 23 year old little girl that her mommy was sick. I thought about how I would work my big-shot job. I wondered what illness and surgery and uncertainty would do to my one-year-old marriage to my 63 year old Dreamboat.
I did not take the diagnosis in stride. I cried.
I cried and I cried. And I cried.
I’m still crying.
About my current condition: I am 2/3 of the way through radiation on the lymph nodes in my neck. This treatment doesn’t work overnight, but the nodes, after first expanding, seem to have reduced in size somewhat. I hope that continues. I’m off antibiotics after weeks dealing with the infection in my left boob, followed by an infection in my gut. My body is a much happier being when it is not enduring antibiotics. So, though I’m getting a lot of treatment: radiation, chemo, neupogen shots to deal with low blood counts from the chemo—I’m feeling pretty good.
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