Eight years ago tonight, I was fasting and nervously wondering if I would sleep at all. The next morning, on Oct. 10, 2003, I awoke at 5 o’clock, a little foggy and a little hungry. Not that I could have eaten anything if I wanted. My stomach was in knots. An hour later, I walked into the pre-surgery area of the Elliot Hospital.
When I regained consciousness in my room that Friday night, I had lost one breast and had a new one put in its’ place. Groggy, but aware of my surroundings, I was surrounded by girlfriends who had stood at my side from the beginning, holding me up, drying my tears, calming my fears with as much hope as anyone can give a friend who has learned she has cancer.
So many of us have been sucker-punched by those five words: You have a malignant tumor. Our minds don’t stop working: Where? How? How big? What will happen to me? Will I die?
I don’t have children, but I know dozens of others who do, and they have asked the obvious question, “Who will care for my sons and daughters if I die?”
I could selfishly just be worried about me, but after all was said and done, I found I wanted to help my friends get through this as much as they wanted to help me.
A diagnosis of cancer creates a life of chaos, decision after decision, choose a surgeon, will I have immediate reconstruction using flesh from my own body or wait and have an artificial breast implanted. I opted to stay with what I know, my own flesh. That meant finding a breast surgeon and a reconstruction surgeon. They then had to pick a day on the surgical schedule at the hospital when a room would be available for a minimum of six hours. It took almost two months from that tell-tale mammogram and ultrasound until they lifted me onto that table and took a scapel to my chest.
Everything about cancer treatment is question and wait. Answers are never quickly forthcoming. There are tests and more tests. What kind of breast cancer? Mine was triple negative. Not estrogen or progesterone driven; not HER2 positive. I didn’t have the BRAC gene. Triple negative. Six months of chemotherapy. Lost my hair. Freaked out a little when I pulled out the last of my eyebrows. My fingernails turned orange and then purple. I was constantly fatigued. Often, if I hadn’t made dinner by 5 p.m., I ate popcorn for the meal. The doctors said that was okay.
I could barely concentrate and for two years, did not read one book. I couldn’t remember one day what I had read the day before. I gave up. Although it saved me a fortune in magazine costs. I’d read the same ones over and over and still be upset when someone (read: me) had torn out a recipe that I wanted to try.
All of that is behind me now. My health is great. I would like a job. A year ago, I was riding the crest of a wave when suddenly and inexplicably the tide ebbed and it hasn’t returned. But neither has the cancer.
I awake everyday, thankful for the very opportunity to be here, to feel the warm sun on my skin, break bread and share wine with my friends, old and new, to walk with my dog, cuddle with my cat. I am thankful to be sitting on my deck close to sunset on the perfect Indian summer October Sunday in New Hampshire.
Although I am dreading the dark hounds of winter, I can always look forward to spring.
Here’s to life!