A year with Cancer
One year ago today, I woke up very early to head to the hospital for the results of a biopsy I had gotten two days earlier. Waiting 48 hours for test results is decidedly inhumane but I had kept myself busy with work and reassurances that nothing was wrong. Even the night before, my mom had come in to say goodnight and after a quick pow wow and assessment of the blood that lay dried on the tip of my nipple, we both concluded I was probably fine. I slept very soundly and woke up ready, if not for good news, then at worst, some mildly inconvenient news.
I approached the check-in desk, joking with my mom and the clerk about their insistence on always asking about my marital status before every appointment. Having just turned 30 two months before, my least favorite ritual was repeating over and over that I was single, childless and unemployed.
I sat in the waiting room of the breast center, the youngest in the vicinity by a long shot. Earlier in the week, knowing I was going to get results that day, I had tried to get an appointment with the world class breast specialist Dr. Silverstein. I was told that he didn’t see new patients unless there is a serious diagnosis and that I would have to see Dr. Guerra who was in the same office.
The nurse called my name to come with her and told my mom to go wait in a room while they checked my biopsy scar and bandages.
“Looks good!” she announced pleasantly. “You can go wait with your mom now. When you are done getting your results, you will see Dr. Silverstein.”
“Oh, I was told I couldn’t see him. I’m here to see Dr. Guerra,” I said, somewhat distractedly as I was attempting to put my shirt back on over mounds of gauze that covered my wound.
I looked up just in time to see her gaze drop.
“Um…yeah-uh I think you’re…uh…going to see Dr. Sil…,” her voice trailing off into a mumble as she hurried me out of the room.
Or maybe she said it clear as day. I wouldn’t know because from that point on, I could only hear a fog horn blaring in my head. An all-encompassing moan of panic, as if an irate driver was laying on his steering wheel. In the five steps from that room to the room I was meeting my mom in, the equation crystallized in my head. If “x”, then “y”. Now, I’ve never been good at math but even with the persistent cacophony in my ears, I knew that “x” was Dr. Silverstein and “y” was bad news.
They led me to my mom, waiting in her own version of panic, in a nice room with a couch and chair. No exam table in sight. This was the bad news room.
“It’s happening!” I practically screamed as soon as the nurse shut the door, leaving us alone. I was borderline manic. I paced the room, unloading all of the evidence to support my theory, while my mom tried to calm me down. This has always been a familiar dynamic with us. She remains positive until proven wrong and I insist on being negative until I’m right. There was every reason to believe this was another instance of my mom talking down her dramatic daughter. But that damn horn was relentlessly screaming inside me and I knew what it was telling me.
The doctor finally came in to give us the results and before she could even ask how I was, I saw “Carcinoma” written on her chart. This time, being right did not feel good.
It’s been a year since that day. At times, it has felt like I’ve lived an entire decade since then. My body believes it’s 20 years older, having been thrust into menopause overnight. It seems comfortable, settling into it’s early retirement, happily getting rid of a lot of it’s duties and lavishly padding itself with the extra fat of a woman of leisure. My brain doesn’t feel the same way, mourning the loss of many parts of me. Some parts are tangible: every ounce of breast tissue was taken from me by a very skilled hand. But some things that were taken from me can’t be measured, such as the ability to ever think “It’s probably nothing.”
Some days I feel like a warrior. Some days I feel an absolute state of bliss as I attempt to relinquish control over things I can’t change. Sometimes I feel the support of thousands of people. Other days, I feel alone, though I never am. Some days, I feel cancer was the greatest gift I ever received. Other times, I feel robbed by a cunning and masterful thief who has ransacked my body, taken what it wanted and then put everything back almost the way they found it. For 365 days, I have been myself, plus something else.
As a musical theatre devotee, I can’t help but ask myself, “How do you measure, measure a year?” In vials of blood. In breasts lost. In dollars that chemo saved me in shampoo and bikini waxes. In dollars I spent in fantastic wigs. In the amount of people who have told me they’ve lost a loved one. In jokes I tried to make with my oncologists that landed flat (They’re a tough crowed). In tears. In more tears. In milestones. In “martini’s”. In the lessons I learned and the ones I’m still too stubborn to receive. In times I surprised myself. In minutes I’ve laughed when I should have cried. In times I felt loved.
Today, I will celebrate. I woke up with a partner who has never left my side since we met three weeks after being diagnosed. I will go to rehearsal for my Broadway show that I am deeply in love with. And maybe I’ll check in with my frozen eggs, the precursors of my family that is waiting for me when the time is right. Single, childless and unemployed no more.
I will seen my parents tomorrow to celebrate my dad’s birthday. Not in the way we celebrated last year, waiting for the results of a PET scan to see if the cancer had spread to other parts of my body, what my parents both describe as the worst day of their lives. No, this year we will have dinner and they will watch me open my 7th Broadway show.
And one more thing will be different today. Something that’s missing. What is it…?
Oh yeah. Cancer.
*This quote was taken from a comment on my first blog post. I’m very gratefully re-purposing it for the title because I loved it.