“I have breast cancer.”
These are words that I’m still getting used to in my head. They don’t sound quite right yet when they pass my lips. I think I may be saying it more like “I have breast cancer?” as if I can’t quite convince myself of that truth. And it is true.
I received my cancer diagnosis two days ago. I felt a lump in my left breast about a month ago, but I thought nothing of it. Breast tissue is constantly changing. You get sore and possibly lumpy before your period, then it goes away. If you are a woman reading this, you are probably nodding your head. However, this lump didn’t go away but I still wasn’t worried. I had a routine physical at the end of the month. Besides, I felt fine (and I continue to feel fine).
My PCP confirmed the lump and sent me for a mammogram and an ultrasound just to make sure it’s just a benign lump and nothing more. That was last week. In one 4-hour window, I received the first and second mammogram of my life; an ultrasound from a technician, a fellow, and an attending; a “this may be cancer” talk from the attending; and a (surprise!!) biopsy.
I’m not sure if I can pinpoint the worst parts of that entire experience. The small paddle on the mammogram that applied so much force to my breast that I involuntarily burst into tears? The constant poking from every health professional I encountered because they wanted to feel the lump for themselves? The seemingly very big biopsy needle that took 5 samples from my body? The second mammogram after the biopsy so they could get a visual on the titanium clip they left in the tumor? Yes, all of these things. And I can’t help to think how that experience will pale in comparison to what waits ahead for me.
People find out you have cancer and your health becomes everyone’s business. People want to talk to you, to get a piece of you, to share in the experience with you. For me on the receiving end, it’s been tiring to have the same conversation over and over again, so I have begun to circle the wagons. My husband Rich, my sister Diana, my team at work, and some close friends – these are the people to whom I divulge how I really feel about all of this from a mental, physical, and emotional standpoint. I don’t have the energy or focus to manage how everyone else feels about what’s happening. I don’t have that many pieces of myself to give away anymore.
Lots of people have sent me inspirational quotes. That seems to be the preferred vehicle by which to convey an uplifting message. But do you know what comforts me in the middle of the night when I can’t sleep and the rest of my house is so very quiet and calm? Facts. I live in data. Don’t send me quotes about living life and being strong. Send me facts that will prove that I will come out the other side as a fully-functional, live human being. Send me facts about this disease so I understand my enemy. Breast cancer is the second leading cause of death among women. 1 in 8 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer some time in their lifetime. The 5-year relative survival rate for Stage 0 and Stage 1 breast cancer is 100%. This is the information that will carry me through to the other side.
I meet my surgeon in a few weeks. In the meantime, I still wait for test results that will help determine the type of tumor that I am carrying around with me. In the meantime, I am reading everything I can about what is happening to me. I am gathering facts and research. I am arming myself for the fight.
Rich and I are preparing our lives for the next few months to try and minimize any distractions and problems. What may seem like quick, impulsive actions from the outside is actually us rushing to beat a looming deadline. The effort to drive both of our cars into the ground is out the window. We’re buying a new car so that I don’t have to worry about making the trek into Boston everyday for weeks for radiation treatment in a car that may end up broken down on the side of the highway. We’re re-arranging our house so that I can easily get to the bathroom and kitchen after surgery and during treatment without having to navigate the stairs. We know you care. We may not have time to say thank you right now.
How am I doing? I am not okay, but I will be. I live a good life and I am thankful to be so lucky, even with a cancer diagnosis. Adversity brings clarity and it’s so clear what is important and what’s not. I have a great family, an employer who is willing to give me whatever time I need, friends who are ready to help, and I want for nothing. I am not okay, but I will be.
Read my continuing posts about breast cancer.