By the time she called, I knew what she was going to say. I knew the lump I had found in my left breast wasn’t supposed to be there and every cell in my body told me it wasn’t benign. Call it intuition, a gut feeling, or, perhaps, the experience of a child who has lost both parents to cancer. There wasn’t one part of me that thought – or even held onto any hope – that she would tell me something to the contrary.
After my kids hopped out of the car – grabbing their backpacks and blowing me kisses – I pulled around to an empty parking space to hear what the doctor had to tell me and to take notes (writing it down both made the news more real and gave me something to read back to my husband). “Looks like it’s early… I’m going to refer you to an oncologist at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute (DFCI)… I’ll call you back once I hear from her… you’re going to be okay.” I’m sure she said the last sentence; in fact, I’ve heard it numerous times since that December morning. I’ve found it helps – to an extent. But, no matter what anyone says, I still know that I have cancer. It’s terrifying.
After I hung up with my primary care physician, I sat in the car, watching the rain spill down my windshield. I cried, I said fuck* a lot. Had I been home, I might have broken something – a coffee mug, I have too many of those. Then, I turned on the car, drove the short distance back to my house, and called the office to cancel my day. If there was ever a day to call in sick, the day of being diagnosed with cancer is that day. I spent the first few hours, crying over the phone to my husband (the poor guy was at work), and reaching out to two friends who are breast cancer survivors to get advice. “Stay off the internet,” said one. “It’ll make you crazy.” Both answered logistical questions about surgeons, oncologists, and chemotherapy. Both said they’d be part of my support system – and they have indeed done that. Both told me I’d be okay.
The next day, the day after my diagnosis, my husband and I met with my oncologist, a specialist in young women** with breast cancer, and her team. They provided me an overview of the next few weeks: genetic testing to see if I carried the BRCA gene mutation (read about my mom’s experience with genetic testing); a surgical consult to discuss options, depending on the genetic test results, including lumpectomy or a mastectomy; a breast reconstruction consult in case I had the BRCA mutation and needed a mastectomy; surgery; chemotherapy; radiation; and additional therapy. I also came to understand that I’d be a regular at DFCI over the next five to ten years. It was time to introduce myself to the guys in valet parking and figure out where to get the best cup of tea.
I cried a lot more during that initial visit, struggling to articulate that my goal was to get healthy. “I know what it’s like to not have a mom,” I remember saying to my doctor and her oncology fellow. “My kids are too young to learn that.”
People I have updated about my diagnosis are incredulous that I found out three days before Christmas. Somehow, that’s worse, right? Christmas should be about family and good things, not errant cells causing damage to your body. I’m not going to sugar coat anything here, so, yes, it sucked to have a Cancer Christmas. Oddly, though, it was a silver lining (I am all about the silver linings these days). My mom who passed away in August loved Christmas fiercely; the prospect of celebrating her beloved holiday without her was almost too much for me. However, that sadness became secondary to my news. I missed her – I miss her – but I am also deeply grateful she isn’t here to witness to my diagnosis and treatment. It would have been too much for her – she would have been undone by it – and I wouldn’t have wanted that.
So here we are. In the past two months, I’ve been diagnosed with cancer, had surgery, and, yesterday, had my first chemotherapy treatment. I’m going to tell you about it here on Red Shutters. I’ll share what I can, what is right for my family and for me. Getting my head around this – the realization that I have cancer – has been and continues to be really hard. You name an emotion – anger, frustration, fear, sadness – and I’ve had it. But for every negative feeling I’ve had, I’ve been surrounded by love and incredible support, by encouragement and by wonderful people. So, despite cancer, I’m feeling grateful.
In the weeks ahead, I plan to write more on this topic. Don’t worry: Red Shutters won’t become all about cancer. I need to balance out the hard stuff with some good, too.
If you have questions about my diagnosis, or topics you’d like to me write about in regards to having breast cancer, please share them in the comments below, or by sending an email to me at redshuttersblog (at) gmail.com. I’d love to hear from you.
* I cursed in this post! Until now, Red Shutters has been a curse-free zone (a deliberate choice on my part, though I did allude to it in this post), but, sometimes, in some situations, you just need to say “fuck” or “fuck it.” Getting diagnosed with cancer is one of them. So, a heads up that you’re likely to see more cursing.
** The irony of being part of a young women’s breast cancer program isn’t lost of me. When I had my kids at age 37 and 39, I was considered “advanced maternal age.” Yet being diagnosed with breast cancer at 43 places me in young women’s group (i.e., young women equals those under 45). A silver lining for me, and I’ve thanked every health care provider I’ve met at DFCI who has referred to me as young – another silver lining!