I have been slightly on edge recently. I was not sure what the cause of my edginess was and my family accused me of being “hangry” and needing to eat more. No. It was not quite that feeling. Sure, I have a lot going on but nothing that is out of the ordinary. I racked my brain for what could possibly be making me uneasy.
My thoughts have been in overdrive again. Was this my typical drive to push myself to achieve my current list of goals? Was this all that has been going on at work? Was this my need to get the kids situated and back into the fall and school swing of things? No. The uncertainty was different than my usual behavior patterns.
Then it hit me. Smack dab in the face.
August 31st, you say? What is the big deal about that date? Labor Day weekend. Yes, usually fun and full of the last of summer events. There it sits, like a lead weight or a heavy matzo ball in the bottom of my stomach. The discomfort and uneasiness has me seeking for relief. Where is the bottle of Tums to coat the emotional distress?
August 31st, 2007 was my own personal “D-Day” and for some reason, the last two D-Days of mine have been a negative memory that has caused the aforementioned uncertainty. Ten years ago, was the day I heard the horrific words, “You have cancer.” Ten years ago, I locked myself in my master bath with my husband as the recognizable hospital number rang on my cell phone and I knew….I just knew. The memories of August 31st are so profound, the details so concise and clear, it is as if the day happened yesterday. A portion of my brain is set on a loop, replaying the events of that day in a way that the Harry Potter marathon plays on the FreeForm channel on TV.
The funny thing is I never thought about my diagnosis date much until the last couple of years. I have yet to pinpoint what triggered this sudden change or recollection of this date. My focus has always been on my “chemoversary” or the date that my medical oncologist used as my “survivorship” date, the date in which I finished the last of my chemotherapy treatments. Despite still needing radiation and more surgery after my chemo was finished, the date that is etched firmly in my brain – much like the birthdates of each of my children, is my chemoversary. It is a much more positive date for me to cling to, so why the sudden clawback to my diagnosis date. I still do not know.
It was a Friday night at 7:00 pm approximately when my phone rang. I can still hear Dr. Quinlan’s soft voice on the other end of the phone. My immediate reaction was why was he calling me at 7:00 pm on a Friday on Labor Day weekend; but I knew. I just knew.
The day before I had a core needle biopsy, the same of which I also remember vividly and with angst. Have you ever seen how they harpoon Moby Dick? Yes. The core needle biopsy was like being harpooned over and over again with a very large gauge weird looking instrument. This procedure is ultrasound guided, so you are forced to look at the screen while the radiologist shoots this weapon into your breast to pull out pieces of your tissue that resemble small worms. Yes, like small earth worms that wiggle across the pavement after a spring storm.
I recall being equal parts intrigued and disgusted as this procedure went on. Science, it is fascinating. But wait, this man is pulling out long, wormy sections of my left boob. I felt sick. I felt hot. I felt cold. The radiologist asked me questions about my pregnancy. Right. Yes. I was 14 weeks pregnant with my third child. Weird that they have the ultrasound on my boob and not on my belly so I could see the little fluttering baby. What alternate universe was I in?
The radiologist was talking incessantly and I interrupted him. Cut the medical talk for a minute, please and in layman’s terms, tell me what you see. Please. The doctor squirmed uncomfortably so for what seemed an unusually long time but was likely seconds. He simply and calmly told us that he had put a rush on my results and good luck with everything. I remember saying to him that means it does not look good. I know you see this stuff all the time, so you know it is not good news. He simply responded to call your oncology office tomorrow after 2:00 pm if you have not heard before then and again he said good luck with everything before leaving the room.
The walk to the car was a daze. Foggy. As if my vision had been clouded over and my mind was honing in on one thought. I looked at my husband as he started the car and I told him, “I have cancer.” His response through clenched teeth was, “It sounds that way, doesn’t it?” The drive home is clear until a certain point and the thought that canvased my brain was “what on EARTH did you do to end up with cancer while pregnant? Did you murder a Pope in a former life?” (Note: I am not even Catholic).
Friday, August 31st was D-Day. How does one sit around and wait for that call? Little chores and tasks did not prove to be a distraction. Tick, tock, tick, tock the clock inside my head went. After what seemed to be the longest day of my life, I called oncology at 2:10 pm to see what was going on since the radiologist told me to call after 2:00 pm. The nurse told me my results were not yet it. Exasperated, I begged her. How could my results not be in yet? I…..*need* to know. She reassured me in her most calming voice that the doctor would call me as soon as he had them. I reminded her it was a holiday weekend and I could *not* wait until Tuesday to know. I reminded her I was pregnant. She promised me the doctor would call me. Tick, tock, tick, tock……..
My children, then nine and six years old were a better distraction. They both knew something was up as their routine had been altered in a couple of weeks prior as their Momma needed some additional doctors’ appointments. My oldest honed in on me with this uncanny ability that she has and she repeatedly asked me if I were okay. I assured her I was okay and that the doctors just needed to check some things out for Mommy. Her eyes gave her away, it was as if she also had this sense of what lay ahead.
The phone rang and my heart skipped a beat. I ran to the bathroom and had my husband join me behind the locked door. We mentioned to the kids we were expecting an important phone call and needed privacy. Of course, that warning did not stop them from knocking and asking what we were doing mid-conversation. Remember how I “knew”? I knew, but there was a part of me that still remained hopeful, maybe even optimistic that the doctor would say there was no concern and the lump in my breast was still just a benign fibroid that would be dealt with after the baby was born.
“Your results are positive.”
The blood drained from my face and plummeted through my body into my feet. I sat on the toilet. Holy shit. My worst nightmare is true. I have cancer. Like cancer-cancer. Somehow, through my marbled thoughts and burning ears, I asked the Chief of Surgical Oncology what stage cancer and what type. I half-listened as he mentioned it looking like Stage Two because my tumor was well over four centimeters in size. I vaguely remember him saying we need more testing to obtain the sub-type of breast cancer that it was. Dr. Q told me he had taken the liberty to schedule me for an all-day meeting with the entire team the following Wednesday. I should be prepared to spend the day at the hospital to make the plan of action.
Quietly, I asked him what my prognosis looked like. Expertly, he explained it depended upon the sub-type but overall the prognosis was good. He further stated that I would likely have to start treatment sooner versus later and that we would work the pregnancy in.
“Oh, crap. I have a baby in me. This changes EVERYTHING.” These were my thoughts as I realized again that I had cancer. I did not know if I were going to live or die. I had young kids. How could I have cancer? What the fuck? My life had had more than its fair share of challenges and hurdles to date, but now I have to add a potential death sentence?
We hung up the phone after thanking Dr. Q for calling us so late on the holiday weekend. My husband was scared shitless. He just stood there with his eyes brimming with tears. His personality makes him go to worst case scenario immediately before working his way backward. He already had me dead.
I begged him to put on his game face as the kids were getting squirrely and begging us to come out of the locked bathroom. We hugged. I told him I would be okay and put my own game face on. The entire night I pondered how I would have to tell everyone that I now have cancer. I was immediately uncomfortable because I am not one for sympathy or help. I am tough. I am resilient. I will do this.
The next morning, we canceled all of our weekend plans. How does one normally process the news that they have cancer? Oh, right, there’s absolutely nothing normal about having cancer. We started slowly sharing the news with family members and close friends. The agony and despair on their faces were nearly as grim as the receipt of the news over and over and over again. I became a walking, living, pity party able to provoke tears or sadness by simply entering the room.
Simply days later, I had meeting after meeting after meeting with a tribe of medical professionals: surgical oncologist, medical oncologist, radiation oncologist, nurse after nurse, mental health social worker, and more. I had made my decision that I was going to wait until my baby was born to do anything. My surgical oncologist begged me to reconsider. He thoroughly explained over and over again how it would not hurt the baby. He displayed twenty-five-year-old studies showing the effects on pregnancy were minimal, albeit real. It was not until I met with the high-risk OB/GYN doctor when I was still being adamant about waiting six more months until my baby was born that I got my wake-up call. The obstetrician grabbed me by the arms, she looked me in the eyes and stated firmly, “Chemo will NOT hurt your baby! You have TWO other children that also need their mother.” Internally, I collapsed. If this doctor was willing to assure me that chemo would NOT hurt my baby……well, I had to place my trust in her at this moment because she was right. I had two older children who did, in fact, need their momma. Ugh, how did I get to this point? Where did I go wrong in my life?
Within a week of my all day pow wow with every doctor under the sun, I was scheduled for my sentinel node surgery the following week. I had been sub-typed with a very aggressive form of breast cancer called Triple Negative Breast Cancer (TNBC). It is more commonly found in women of African-American descent, so why did I have it? Who knows. We needed to start treatment immediately.
My very first chemotherapy treatment consisted of two drugs: Adriamycin (the red devil) and Cytoxan the week after. The regiment of drugs at the time for TNBC was to include a third chemotherapy called Taxol, but they refused to give it to me while I was pregnant. I had also begged for a mastectomy, get these boobs off of me but my surgeon felt it was too risky while pregnant, plus because I was so young he was of the breast conservation decision. I disagreed but he showed statistics that mastectomy would not improve my survival rate. My baby was more important than a risky infection. By September 14th, just barely two weeks after my diagnosis, I had already had surgery and started my first of many chemotherapy treatments.
Recalling this time in my life is crystal clear. One would think that ten years later, the memories would start to diminish. Isn’t there a cliché about time healing wounds? I am healed in many ways, but August 31st and the days shortly thereafter are meshed into my being and forever a part of who I am now. I am blessed to still be here with these vivid recollections because so many of the wonderful women I met along the cancerland highway are not. My hope is that someone will read this that may be newly diagnosed and have a little hope that ten years down the line, they will recant their story for someone else. Maybe someone else further out like me will feel validated and resonate with their own memories, “Yes! I can recall my diagnosis this clearly too!”
Ten years. Here’s some perspective: My older two were nine and six on August 31, 2007. My older two are now nineteen and sixteen on August 31, 2017. From fourth grade to a sophomore in college for my oldest! From kindergarten to junior year in high school for my middle. From in utero to fourth grade for my miracle chemo baby.
Ten years. Ten glorious years of living life after cancer. The gift of life a second time over is glorious. I am looking forward to my next ten years as there’s a whole lot more living to be had.