Friday the 13th. January 13th, 2017. Why on earth I agreed to an appointment on Friday the 13th is beyond me, but looking back Monday the 16th wouldn’t have changed anything.
I still would’ve heard the diagnosis no one’s ever prepared to hear: You have breast cancer. The doctor explained what kind of cancer (high grade DCIS), how big and where, and reassured me over and over, “You are not going to die.” She talked about pathology and radiology and biopsy and surgery. The tears flowed. She said again, “You are not going to die.” I told her I was too young. I told her I was a mom. I told her my babies were just 2 and 5. “You are not going to die,” she said again with her hand touching my knee, tears welling up in her own eyes.
She laid out the options: lumpectomy with daily radiation for 6 weeks, mastectomy of the diseased breast or bilateral mastectomy of the diseased breast and the one cancer had not touched. She talked about my survivability rate and that any of those choices offered me the same chance at life; a 100% chance of life, actually. She talked about how each choice played into future chances for the cancer to return.
She talked about my 10 year survival rate. 10 years?! I don’t want 10 years! I want 40, I told her!
None of these sounded like good options to me. I didn’t want these options. I didn’t want this cancer. I didn’t want this to be happening.
I told her I was just so shocked. How did this happen? Why me? She asked about family history. There is none.
My mind was racing. I had so many questions. I had so much information. She drew pictures to help me understand. She wrote down step by step what I needed to do next because I told her I was so overwhelmed I didn’t even know what I was supposed to do.
The only thing I could still think about were my babies at home and the lifelong impact this would have on me and my family; how much I need to be with those babies, raise them and watch them grow.
I told her I was angry. I told her this pissed me off. I’m not sick. I have nothing wrong with me. I don’t even have back pain! I never have to check any of the boxes on the health history at the doctor. The fact I would have to check “cancer” from here on out made me so mad. The fact that I would now have to spend thousands of dollars a year on my health for the rest of my life irritated me. I shouldn’t have to start this now. Not at 41 years old. I shouldn’t have to worry about this or make this part of my life for another 20 or 30 years!
This all sucks. She nodded. She understood. None of it’s good, she said.
But we caught it early, she said. That is good. You are going to survive.
Yes, but getting to that survival involves some very unpleasant, life changing choices, no matter which choice I make, and again, I just don’ t want to have to make any of these choices.
I went to the car. I cried. I more than cried. I sobbed. I called my mom. I hadn’t even told her I was having tests that may lead to this.
My husband was at the appointment, but I could barely tend to my own emotions let alone his. I remember shock. I remember sadness. I remember anger. I remember questions and disbelief. But I was barely processing. It was all just a blur; so surreal.
I was supposed to go back to work, but I just sat in the car and cried. When I did get to work I couldn’t even think.
In the days that followed I had more tests (5 appointments in one week actually); I had a complete breakdown at one and realized then it was too much to bear. I called the nurse for something to calm me and help me sleep.
When people asked how I was, I decided I would give them the truth: sad, scared, worried, anxious, angry, and frustrated. And I ride that roller coaster of emotion every day.
Every appointment there was something unexpected or some new result; another tumor, a bigger spot, suspicious lymph nodes. We won’t know about any of that until after surgery.
There were radiology & pathology appointments, cancer center appointments, a breast surgeon, a plastic surgeon and second opinions. There was an email for a support group that I rejected and asked never to get anything from again. It’s still hard to believe I belong in that support group.
All the years of interviewing breast cancer patients, families, experts, and health officials had come full circle. Oh, the irony in the fact that 20 years ago I did a story in Wausau, Wisconsin, talking about the new drug that would change everything for breast cancer patients; the trial for Tamoxifen had started. Now I’m the woman doctors are talking to about taking Tamoxifen.
Oh, the irony of the fundraisers I’ve hosted and the Relays for Life I have emceed and promoted, the interview with Nancy Komen, sister of Susan G. Komen, the family in Green Bay trying to save their little girl, the American Cancer Society programs and kits for patients, the scientists looking for links and experimental treatments, the yoga teacher helping breast cancer patients find peace, oh, the irony.
I’ve thought a lot about all of those interviews, remembering how I didn’t know where these people found their strength, how they stayed positive, how they moved forward; remembering how I told myself if I was ever in a place I needed strength, these are the people I would remember.
And alas, here we are, me leaning on their inspiration from two decades of reporting to help me through. Talk about a divine plan.
You should know no one ever says the right thing in these situations. I don’t care that I’m going to live. (I mean, of course I do, there’s just so much else I’m angry at right now.) I don’t have good cancer; yes, it was caught early, but no cancer is good. The treatments are the same no matter what the stage, surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, drugs; the combination of them just varies. I’m not happy that I’m getting new boobs; I didn’t want new boobs and I certainly didn’t want them because of this. And my new boobs won’t be like your new boobs because you have breast tissue and I won’t. You have feeling, I’ll be numb; mine are like a prosthetic limb.
I’m trying to lean on God, but you have to understand I’m angry at God. That first weekend all I did was ask over and over, “why?” There is no answer to the why. I had a gene test. It was negative. Not just negative for this, but negative for all gene mutations currently linked to cancer. Some good that does, I already have the cancer, who needs the gene?!
I’ve started to let go of needing to know why. That just doesn’t matter. I’ve started to let go of the anger. That’s just not helpful.
I still can’t see the other side; that side that comes after surgery, after step one of this treatment process, onto the next step and then to recovery. The side that comes one year from now, 3 years from now, 5 years from now when I could make it to that milestone of being “cancer free.”
What about 20 years from now? Where am I then?
I’ve started not to look so far ahead. That only makes me anxious and worried. I’ve started to just be present. Focus on now. Focus on the next appointment. Focus on the next “to do” on the list.
It doesn’t lessen the sadness. That comes without warning, suddenly, in a wave; while I’m blow drying my hair, while I’m driving to work, while I’m rocking the baby or just watching my kids and their dad play outside. It’s uncontrollable. There’s no stopping the tears.
The day after my diagnosis I cried five times; the day after that I cried three. I still cry every day. I don’t’ think the sadness will ever go away. And I don’t know if I’ll ever find peace with it.
I told my husband that if I come out of this the same person, then what good has it been? I’m already a different person and I’m leaving my heart open to hear the kind of person God wants me to be after this; to hear the message he’s sending through this. I can’t be the same person. I won’t be the same person. It changes you immediately.
You may think you live each day like you know it could be your last, but I promise you, when someone tells you you have a disease that could make those days shorter, it becomes a reality that slaps you in the face. A reality you can’t ignore; a reality that eats at the very core; a reality that hits every night I rock my baby to sleep and read to my 5 year old; a reality that is, well, all too real.
The next step for me is surgery, and then from there it all depends on the tests that come back. What I’ve learned in this process is that for all we do know, there is so much we don’t know. But I’m holding on to faith, family and friends to see me through – and Friday the 13th still won’t scare me, I’ll just be sure any future appointments on that day are appointments for things like a massage, or getting my hair done, not going to the doctor.