I heard the “C” word, but little else. It was June 14, 2012. I stared at a box of tissues in the middle of the doctor’s office thinking, some people probably really need those. I will never need those. I had breast cancer. My doctor was talking. I couldn’t take it all in. I remember my doctor saying: “If you have to have breast cancer, this is the type to have.” That’s really all I needed to hear. It would mean surgery and then seven weeks of radiation, five days a week. I didn’t like the thought of radiation but was glad I hadn’t heard the words mastectomy or chemotherapy. I could do 35 radiation appointments. I had cancer. I didn’t have to have a mastectomy. I didn’t have to have chemotherapy. It was caught early. Thank God, it was me, and not one of the kids. My mind was racing.
My husband and I left the appointment and got in our separate cars. I called him as I drove home.
“What are we having for dinner?” I asked.
He didn’t want to talk about food. He wanted to talk about how we were going to tell the kids (three teenagers) that I had cancer. I was adamant that we were not going to tell the kids. Not yet. I didn’t want to worry them. We hung up, and then a few minutes later he called back.
He called the kids and told them to be home for dinner. I fumed as I drove home. I wasn’t ready to tell the kids. I wasn’t ready to tell anyone I had cancer. Yet an hour later, I was so relieved and thankful. We made tacos and we all stayed in on a Friday night.
Next, I had to tell my Mom. Like with my kids, I didn’t want to worry her. My Dad, who I really, really wanted to talk to, had passed away two years earlier. She was still in deep grief and now I was going to put this on her shoulders. I felt horrible. As is usual with my more than loving, caring, and helpful Mom she was there every step of the way with help, support, prayers, and my favorite meals.
I learned a lot that year about cancer and about myself.
Waiting can be excruciating. We had a plan. First surgery, and then immediately after radiation. But there was a scare that it might be in my lymph nodes (it was not), but that led to an unexpected additional surgery and a delay in starting treatments until the area healed.
The outpouring of support from friends and family was nothing short of amazing. All of the cards, casseroles, sweets, candles, a custom blanket, and visits were so appreciated. In addition, people helped drive my kids to their activities, they helped clean the house and keep me sane. My girlfriends even had a slumber party! Even though it was so hard for me to accept the attention and help, I was humbled to the core. And still am to this day.
In hindsight, I handled radiation poorly. I never missed a day of work. I got up early, drove myself to radiation treatment every morning, then began my 30-minute commute as if it was just another workday. A psychologist may have told me I was in denial. I probably was.
As the treatment progressed, the area was sore, burned, raw, crispy, and tender. I was tired, very tired. I rarely told or complained to anyone. I didn’t want to talk about cancer. I didn’t want to admit out loud I had cancer. I didn’t want cancer to identify me.
Just walking up a flight of stairs to get to my office wore me out. I couldn’t find a bra tight enough to keep everything in place to reduce the pain. Some days it got so bad, I would sneak away to the office bathroom, take my shirt off and sit on the cold tile bathroom floor and work, shirtless. It felt so good to not have anything touching me.
If you’re thinking my boss is callous and uncaring. It’s just the opposite. I could have come in late, worked half days or taken seven weeks off with pay. But that would have meant admitting I had cancer. I felt like I had to deny that this was happening and ignoring it would make it all go away. And by all means, no one else could do my job and I wasn’t going to inconvenience anyone and ask for help. When my family and friends suggested I take time off, I looked at them as though they were insane.
Here’s something I never expected. I became so close to the radiation techs those seven weeks, that I missed them terribly for several months after. In the beginning, I longed for the day I didn’t have to see them every morning. But they became part of my new normal. They not only were zapping cancer cells, they were reassuring. They were kind and caring and gave me strength to come back the next day. I still take them treats every November.
I truly never want to see my breast surgeon again, and I asked him at my final appointment in November 2012: What do I have to do? The advice sounded easy. Don’t gain weight, limit red meat, and eat lots of leafy greens. It’s not easy. I love a good cheeseburger a lot more than I like spinach and broccoli.
We made it through. I’ve never used a tissue over this. Last year, we finally paid off the medical bills (even though we had health insurance, it was still expensive). I don’t think about it much. Except twice a year when I get a mammogram. In that time waiting on the results, I will have crippling anxiety, the sweaty all over kind thinking about what if it’s back and what if it’s worse this time? Then I get that all clear, call my close family and friends with the good news, and carry on with life. It’s not on my top five list of worst things that has happened in my life.
My advice seven years later. Get your mammogram. Exercise. Get your mammogram. Eat leafy greens. Get your mammogram. Limit red meat (that doesn’t mean you can’t treat yourself with a juicy steak ever now and then). Get your mammogram. Don’t be a martyr at work, it’s a job. Get your mammogram. Surround yourself always with good family and friends. Get your mammogram.