In an instant, everything changed.
I was stretching my arms over my head, as I loved to do as I was settling into bed for the night, and I felt a – twinge – in my chest. A ping. The tinniest and tiniest of feelings, a fleeting distress signal, that was gone almost as quickly as it arrived.
The date was August 28, 2010.
It was the oddest sensation, that twinge, and I can’t even really explain it now, all these years later. It was odd enough that my hand reflexively went to the spot.
And that’s when I think I really knew.
Even after that night, after the first exam, the first ultrasound, the first reassurance that this was a cyst, that it was fine, that there was nothing to worry about, I think I really knew. It took a couple of referrals, a couple more ultrasounds, a mammogram, and finally a biopsy, though, to confirm that I was right.
“Well, we got it all, and it was, uh, it was cancer.”
I was woozy and just fully coming out of the anesthesia, but I can hear the surgeon’s words like it was, well, a sentence that’s echoed in my head for the past 10 years.
EVERYTHING disappeared in that moment, save for his voice and those words. First I looked at Hunter, my eighth-grade son. And then I realized that, for both his sake and mine, I needed to keep it together and figure out what those words would mean for me.
And what I learned almost immediately is that you should never trust yourself to remember important details when you’re coming out of anesthesia. I completely missed the part about coming in the next week – right after Christmas – for lymph node removal. I definitely missed the part about the aggression of the tumor growth meaning that chemo and radiation were still necessary, even though the tumor itself was out.
In fact, I left feeling really good. I walked around projecting cockiness.
“Oh yeah, I had cancer, and it was no big deal.”
For the record? It’s a big deal.
The next week, I had a tube sticking out of my side, draining fluid into a bulb that I had to empty periodically. I had a new incision site under my right arm to match the angry slash above my right breast. I thought back to all the days that I used to think that my boobs weren’t exactly the same size, or the days after breastfeeding when I rued the fact that my right side was definitely smaller than my left.
Let’s just say I don’t complain about that anymore.
What really saved me, in addition to my family’s support and love, were those who had walked this walk before me. And, guys? There are so many of us.
One in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime, and diagnoses are increasing by 0.3% per year. It’s the most common cancer in women and the second-leading cause of cancer death (lung cancer is first). However, breast cancer is rarely fatal; only 2.6% of women diagnosed will succumb.
The 1 in 8 thing is a statistic that’s bandied about frequently, though, so it seems to have lost its punch. Breast cancer has become the cause du jour of cancers: the “Wear Pink” campaign each October is possibly the most widely-known cancer research fundraiser. I don’t mean to sound cavalier, but I do feel badly for those who have had other diagnoses. Those whose cancer has metastasized. Because the truth is, ALL CANCER SUCKS. It just sucks. It’s ugly and it’s painful and it’s lonely. It’s isolating and the fastest way to face your own mortality.
It’s also the fastest way to find your own purpose.
The cancer removal was easy, but the treatment was awful. The next seven months were whirlwinds of doctors, specialists, more surgery (the chemo port insertion, which looked like a small doorknob sticking out from under my collarbone) and hair loss.
Chemo: the nausea was like nothing I can describe, then or now. The neuropathy was debilitating. The baldness would have been more devastating than it was, but I was so sick I really couldn’t care (I did love how smooth my head was, though).
But as awful as treatment is (and it should be awful, considering it consists of filling you up with poison), it gives you time to think. I had so much time, and while most of it was spent sleeping, the rest of it was spent looking at healthy people on Facebook and thinking that I would be healthy again. It made me realize how incredibly short life was, and how close I was to having a life much shorter than what I had assumed.
It made me find my voice. It made me use my voice. And, in the beginning, when my voice was small and rusty, it made me try again, and again.
I didn’t want to miss any more chances. I didn’t want any more of life to pass me by.
In the 10 years since my diagnosis, I’ve gotten two degrees, watched my son graduate from high school, and, in a few months, from college. I left my hometown and pursued professional dreams. I found my place in the world.
I found a lot of things with cancer. But that doesn’t mean I wish it on anyone. Of the women that walked before me, and turned back to help me, only one is still living. The world has lost so many warriors – of course it has, nobody gets out of here alive – to this disease. I’ve lost so many people I deeply loved, and several of those people were even younger than me.
Today, I am grateful. My cancer wasn’t genetic, so nutrition and fitness routines became my dual focuses. Because I’m not a damn machine, I still really struggle with avoiding sugar. I love donuts, and I love frosting-forward cakes. Late-night snacking is my jam. None of those things magically disappear just because you know you’re supposed to avoid them, you know?
But it still makes me pause, and it still makes me think. I never did self-examinations. It was pure luck that a routine stretch set off an alarm bell serious enough for me to check. So, to those of you reading, I urge you to please self-examine. If something feels off, it probably is. Several nurses and doctors told me that I didn’t have anything to worry about, based entirely on my age, lack of family history, and historical prevalence of cysts vs. tumors. While I’m glad that I found my voice and my strength battling to be taken seriously, I also wish that I had pushed harder, sooner, instead of blissfully accepting the initial diagnosis because I wanted it to be true.
And to those of you reading who are battling, please reach out to me. No matter your diagnosis, no matter its weight, nobody should ever walk alone.
In an instant, everything changed…but life is so much more beautiful now. (And to cancer, don’t get smug – I still pretty much hate you.)