On day 21 of 21 consecutive visits to Emory’s Department of Radiation Oncology, I lay on the table for my last radiation treatment and ugly-cry for the first time since being diagnosed with breast cancer. When it’s over we all head out to the lobby for the ceremonial ringing of the bell that signifies someone is done with treatment. I cry again, my team cries, Denise – who has been with me through all of this – cries and takes pictures of us crying. I have been a frightened and bitchy patient. For the past five weeks Tony, Travis and Bridget (along with a rotation of medical students) have literally had my heart and my lungs in their hands as they radiated everything around them to kill any stray cancer cells leftover from two preceding surgeries.
It’s taken five months, but I am ready to talk about my breast cancer diagnosis.
First and foremost: I am ok – thanks to a list that starts with a radiologist who noticed a small cluster of 3 microscopic calcifications on my routine annual mammogram back in November. How lucky am I? I really mean that: what if she blinked, sneezed, tweeted or was overworked or bored? I see it all the time in every profession – but thankfully, not this one, not this time. In less than a week after learning of this “suspicious” area, I am subjected to a diagnostic mammogram, which confirms the suspicions and several days later rushes me into a brutal stereotactic biopsy that removes the calcifications and several other core samples of tissue from the surrounding area. Less than a week later I hear the C word: you have breast cancer, caught at the earliest stage. This is only mildly reassuring at first, because cancer is a scary word and I am reeling and grossly unprepared for the decisions I will have to make very quickly with information that is new and foreign to me. In a two-week period of time, I get a crash course in stages and grades of cancer, words and acronyms, and whether my particular type of cancer warrants a mastectomy of both breasts or lumpectomy of one – the former meaning radical surgery and long convalescence; the latter less invasive surgery but the addition of intentionally radiating my body and taking a medication to keep me cancer-free for the next five years. And I have to make this decision immediately because cancer is inside me, eating my breast tissue and leaving a trail of calcifications behind. I would happily have my breasts removed if it gave me a better outcome – but as it turns out, the outcome is the same whichever I choose: the prognosis remains the same.
Neither path is appealing. I don’t want cancer, that is my choice. My Surgical Oncologist laughs then tells me to choose. I have a great SO, Dr.Arciero. The very first time he saw me he said it was ok to keep my housecoat on in the cold examination room – only it wasn’t a housecoat, it was a long, fashionable hand-stitched cardigan. He operated on me twice, as it turned out. The non-invasive tumor is larger than first thought. He is patient and professional and deadpan funny in his answers as I ask ill-informed questions about the benefits of radiation and recurrence, and if mastectomy would be a better option after all. I ask over and over. He answers. So does my Radiation Oncologist, who keeps a straight face when I dash out a drawing of where my tape and incision and tumor areas were so I can understand where the laser beams will be pointed. She even draws a side-boob on the envelope to show how the rads will miss my heart and lungs. I did not know how many oncologists I would have - three so far, typical, I know now.
When all of this was happening a lot of other things were happening – the heroes of my daily life were identifying themselves. Number 1: Denise, who upon learning of my diagnosis said I’m your person. And she has been there for every surgery, the beginning and end of radiation, many days and nights with the calm, patient understanding it took to cancer-speak, most especially when I could not. At home, Rhonda, Lisa and Hope kept me in beautiful flowers and luxury comfort items. The men fed us: neighbor Sara brought husband Zach's lasagna and stacks of sugar cookies; Steve brought homemade chicken pot pie, chili, hambone soup; Don brought beef stew; Walter brought pints and pints of Haagen Dazs ice cream and expired tapioca. At work, Anna kept up my spirits every day and offered to be the scissors on any red tape I encountered. Margi gave me a place in her home the night before the first surgery; Brett drove through snow like a boss to bring me home when snow shut down Atlanta and the first surgery was canceled. The lovely, faraway people who were present in words and cards and conversation – you know who you are and how much I appreciate you.
When breast cancer enters your life, you become aware of how much it affects other people. Three women close to me in my life are undergoing breast cancer treatment at the same time as me. Another old and dear friend lives with a metastatic head cancer that will never be gone, but managed on a daily basis. And I mean uncannily – none of us knew the other had been diagnosed. They can identify themselves if they’d like, but sisterhood and brotherhood, we share fear and hope and life.
And my breastcancer.org community sisters in February surgery and March radiation – we went through this together, first as strangers, and now as women with a common bond who are choosing to continue on the journey through all of our next steps. I offer hand drawings of the magic marker and tape road map of my chest, necessary for radiation. They laugh. We lift each other up.
For all of you who have known about my illness, sent your thoughts and good wishes, sent your prayers around the world – thank you for respecting my privacy until I was ready to talk about this.
Radiation is not the end of the road for me. After Surgical and Radiation Oncology, Medical Oncology is next. I will most likely take a hormone therapy for at least 5 years, if not for life, that will starve any future cancer cells out of existence. Or at least prevent them from growing.
More than anything, these past few months have been a heartfelt lesson of the best that humankind has to offer. I am the grateful recipient of grace and compassion when I most needed it – the silver lining of fear and anger and uncertainty.
As cancers go, I got the best bad news one can get. My cancer was noninvasive, which gives me a head start in living whatever my normal lifespan will be. The message I get from this all is that today should not be squandered. All my life I’ve worked to build a solid enough foundation to swan dive into my reward: a calm and peaceful life filled with simple beauty. Whether it is two days or two decades, I dive now. Life is for living NOW.
Love and peace. xox