Thursday, January 9, 2014

January 9th, 2009

My kids were one and three years old when I was diagnosed with breast cancer.  That was five years ago today.  Apparently, your "survivor" timeline starts on the day you were diagnosed since you have survived since that day, not from the day you were cured.  So I guess I'm a five year breast cancer survivor today.  But I don't really like to say that because frankly, my life was never really in jeopardy.  Survivor is much too strong a word for me. 

In spite of the fact that I had a bilateral mastectomy, my cancer was actually caught pretty early.  I went in for my first (and consequently last and only) mammogram and boom, there it was.  No mistake, tiny white star-like dots all in a line.  It looked a lot like snow, actually.  Even though I was only thirty-seven years old, I asked if I could have a mammogram because I had been having a bit of pain.  Also, my mother had had breast cancer and I had heard that I should probably start mammograms earlier with my family history.  I was assured that it couldn't possibly be cancer because I would never be able to feel something so microscopic, and they were right.  The area where I felt the pain wasn't where they found the cancer.  In hindsight, the doctors should have told me that the pain was likely related to the fact that I had recently stopped breastfeeding Holden.  A blocked milk duct.  But then if they had, I wouldn't have gotten the mammogram for another three years or so.

I still remember getting the phone call from the doctor with the biopsy results.  I could hear my heart beating in my ears.  I wrote down on a piece of paper in front of me (which I still have), "evidence of cancer cells".  I called Kevin.  My mom.  My dad.  And then paced circles around our dining room table.  For about 45 minutes until Kevin got home.  Around and around.  Not crying, just pacing, listening to my heart beat.

A bilateral mastectomy probably sounds pretty drastic for early stage breast cancer.  I'm told that it was a more aggressive kind of cancer.  Also, instead of a tumor starting in the milk duct and then getting bigger and passing across the milk duct, as most breast cancers do, mine grew along the inside of the duct, making it too long of an area to do a lumpectomy.  Within a minute of walking into the exam room the surgeon told me and Kevin that a mastectomy of the right breast was necessary.  I told her to take my right arm if she had to, just get it out.  I chose to have them take the other one while they were at it.  A prophylactic mastectomy.  I figured the reconstruction would look a lot better if they did them both at the same time.  After all, I had just breastfed two babies in the last three years and they were offering me a free boob job!  Mostly, I just didn't want to have to worry about cancer on the other side.  There were already "suspicious areas" that they biopsied on the left breast that they were going to "watch". 

Believe it or not, getting a cancer diagnosis with two toddlers in tow wasn't even the worst thing that's ever happened to me.  Actually, looking back, it was a very positive experience.  My community of friends, family, and even strangers all pitched in and made our lives pretty easy.  We had dinners delivered every single day for six weeks.  Kevin's aunt Jane was especially generous with weekly meals delivered for weeks.  We even had credit with meal services for months afterward.  I became very close with neighbors who took turns taking the kids to their houses for playdates.  The parents at Ella's preschool made a schedule of who was going to bring Ella to school and who would bring her home.  Parents I didn't even know.

And my mom.  Man, did she take good care of us.  She drove almost 3 hours every Monday morning and helped with the kids, coordinated pick-ups and drop-offs of the kids to various playdates, accepted deliveries of food, cleaned, drove me to doctors appointments.  She even bathed me those first couple weeks when I couldn't raise my arms over my head.  One of my most treasured memories is sitting in the bathtub as my mom washed my hair and Ella, then 3 years old, took a washcloth to my legs and scrubbed.  Then on Friday afternoons, mom would drive all the way home so that we could have some family time together on the weekends. 

Having breast cancer made me feel more loved than I had ever felt before.  More taken care of.  And even though I had what I like to refer to as the easiest cancer ever - no chemotherapy, no vomiting, no radiation, no hair loss - cancer made me feel a lot stronger.

Because the world was holding me up.

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