It’s been at least three years since my dear friend Norma (she’s like my second mother) asked me if I’d had a mammogram yet. My response was along the lines of, “Why in the hell would I have a mammogram? I’m only 40 years old. Mammograms don’t start until you’re 50.” Apparently, they start at 40. So, I put that on my to-do list. And I did it, 2 years and 11 months later. Two weeks after my mammogram, I was called in for second mammogram and an ultrasound. During that appointment, the breast care nurse told me I have very fibrous breasts, and they needed to do the ultrasound because they couldn’t see what was behind all that fibrous tissue. She lectured me about caffeine intake (3 cups a day usually), as it can be a culprit for fibrous breasts. But she didn’t think I had cancer, and she is always honest with her patients. Whew. A week later, I was called in for an MRI. I reminded myself that I have really fibrous breast tissue so an ultrasound, like the mammogram, probably couldn’t see past that either. On December 14, 2012, my husband and I did some Christmas shopping and then headed to Steinberg Diagnostics for my MRI. What a waste of everyone’s time and insurance money, I told myself. All these overly cautious doctors. I’m only 42 years old. I’m vegetarian. I practice yoga at least 4 times a week. I am thin. I use paraben-free face cleanser and moisturizer and aluminum-free deodorant. I eat mostly organic foods. I don’t even microwave plastic! Whatever, if it makes these doctors feel better, I’ll lie face-down for 45 minutes with my breasts hanging through those holes while they take their little photos. I’ll even let them give me headphones so I can listen to some music while they do it. Something in my mind changed, though, as I sat on that hard, plastic chair, pulling the hospital gown close to me so it would stay closed (they don’t make those things for 5-foot tall, 98-lb people), as I waited to be called back for my photo shoot. While I waited, I watched President Obama’s news conference about the deadly shooting rampage that had taken place in a kindergarten class that morning. My daughter was in kindergarten at the time. I started weeping, silently (I didn’t want the guy next to me to see me crying). I wanted to go hug my daughter; I didn’t want to be waiting for an MRI that might reveal I have breast cancer. Oh my freaking god. That was the first moment I realized that, yes, I might have breast cancer. I wept silently for all 45 of those minutes it took for the MRI. A week later, I was told I needed a biopsy. Fuck. It was starting to sound scary and real, but I was sure they just wanted to be on the safe side. I have fibrous breasts – the breast care nurse said so. She even said she didn’t think I had breast cancer and she always tells her patients the truth, remember? Well she’s a bitch. She got to be a hero for a moment because she knew she’d never have to see me again.
The day after Christmas my husband took me for the biopsy. (I won’t get into the details right now about the day I was trying to coordinate transfer of my MRI films from the MRI people to the biopsy people…it was a little complicated because I was visiting my parents in Illinois and the MRI films were at the diagnostics place in Las Vegas, but I had inadvertently missed signing the consent form that allowed release of my medical records to my husband, and the MRI people didn’t want to give him my films so he could deliver them to the biopsy people. And I was covertly having phone conversations with the doctors’ offices and my husband in Las Vegas while I was standing in a bookstore in Illinois with my parents, who had no idea what was going on with me. I didn’t want to worry them since they were living their own nightmare with my mom’s metastatic lung cancer…that’s a story for another day.)
First order of business on biopsy day was yet another mammogram, which showed they needed to biopsy three spots on my right breast. WHAT??? Does that mean I could potentially have 3 tumors? (My surgeon would later discover there were 4 tumors.) Un-fucking-real. A week later, January 2, 2013, the first business day of the year, I got the news: I have breast cancer. Cancer. I have cancer. But my mom has cancer, how can I also have cancer? How am I going to tell my parents and my brother and his wife that I have cancer while they are dealing with my mom’s cancer? I’m only 42 years old. I have 2 little girls. Oh my god, I have a disease that might kill me. Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck. January 29, I had a bilateral mastectomy, followed by 6 weeks of radiation. June 4, I had my first reconstructive surgery (placement of tissue expanders). October 1, I had my third, and hopefully final, surgery (replacement of tissue expanders with silicone implants). Incidentally, my final surgery was on the day my mom would have turned 71 had she not lost her life to lung cancer in April. Today I am almost 3 weeks post-op, which means 3 weeks done with all treatment, not including the 5-year regimen of Tamoxifen which is triggering the onset of menopause. Until 3 weeks ago, my life this year has revolved around doctors’ appointments, treatments, surgeries…the business of treating my cancer. Treatment and surgeries are complete, and now I have to move forward. The moving forward is proving to be just as difficult, if not more difficult. The physical pain is waning, but the scars and disfigurement remain, and the emotional pain has taken over. And I don’t know how to overcome it.