When it comes to cancer, they say the time between diagnosis and treatment is one of the hardest parts to deal with. This is the dark hole where The Wild Thoughts live during the day and where the Night Terrors wake you and tell you that cancer is growing everywhere in your body.
I have the displeasure of knowing this first-hand because in January, I became the “one” — as in one in eight women who will, in their lifetime, be diagnosed with breast cancer.
I’ve always wondered what it’s like for people when they hear those words. How does that conversation go down?
I’ll tell you: On January 23, the radiologist who’d been studying my mammogram and ultrasound images entered the examining room, introduced herself to me and said, “So, I just have to say it: it’s cancer.”
Just like that.
I can tell you at that exact moment, I did not appreciate this doctor or her manner. I stared at her while I tried to make sense of what she was saying. How could she just walk in and say, ‘It’s cancer.’ There was no warm up, no hand-holding, no pat on the shoulder.
The timing was horrible. I was leaving for a month-long trip to SE Asia in five days…but I guess the timing is never good when you get this news.
“You can go,” she said, “but be prepared to come back early.”
She suggested an immediate core biopsy and I agreed. It would feel good to prove her wrong.
A week later, I sat on the edge of a tub in an ugly little bathroom of an Air B&B in Taipei listening to my family doctor read the biopsy results over the phone. The radiologist was not wrong.
“I’ve made an appointment with a surgeon who’ll determine if you need a full mastectomy or just a lumpectomy,” my doctor added, half a world away.
A full mastectomy? It had only been a week since I was told I had breast cancer and now I’m having to consider the possible removal of both breasts.
I returned from SE Asia and on March 13 met with Dr. Dabbs, a soft-spoken surgeon, who took her time examining me and explaining my situation. When she said I wouldn’t need a mastectomy, I wept with relief.
Her colleague, Dr. Olson, performed a lumpectomy on April 2 leaving me a few ounces lighter and with a 3-inch scar between my right breast and my armpit. Eighty-four days would eventually pass from when the radiologist walked in so cavalierly with her findings until I’d sit with Dr. Olson on April 17 to go over the pathology report. That’s a long time to wonder what you’re up against. The stress of not knowing, coupled with The Wild Thoughts, was debilitating. I thought again how the timing sucked. I really didn’t have the steam to take on any more stress. My plate was full.
Two years of divorce proceedings had tapped my resources (mental, physical, you name it); my father’s health was declining, and we were in the process of moving him to a care home. Three days before his move-in date, he changed his mind and didn’t want to go. I snapped and immediately felt horrible. He had no idea what I was going through and I didn’t want to burden him. He had enough to deal with.
With each day that passed, it was getting harder to stay positive. A therapist friend, knowing what I was going through with the divorce (but nothing else), suggested I might be suffering from high functioning depression—basically smiling on the outside; breaking apart on the inside. He was right. I was all that and more. Not only was I trying to keep my head above the 5-foot mark in the mental health pool but also the heads of my kids too as they struggled to cope with the fallout of divorce plus the added trauma of watching their step-mom lose her five-year battle against cancer. A month after I told the girls about my diagnosis, she passed away. Their grief crushed me.
How could I convince them I’d be okay?
By the end of May, I had come to terms with my diagnosis. My first appointment with an oncologist was set for June 5. Just knowing there was someone who could show me a treatment path made me feel better. Three days before that appointment, a close friend died unexpectedly. We had spoken the night before about going out for dinner with friends. The suddenness of his death levelled me flat. I honestly didn’t know how much more I could take.
The Cross Cancer offers psychological, spiritual and social worker support for people diagnosed with cancer. I dialled the number and spent half an hour talking with a counsellor. The relief was enormous.
By the time I met with the oncologist a few days later, a handful of people knew of my diagnosis. By then, I realized that trying to do this all on my own was a mistake. I took a friend with me to make notes and ask questions; a wise move as it turns out. By the end of those two hours, your brains are mush.
It took me a week of contemplation and research before I decided that chemo followed by radiation is the best treatment plan for me.
Chemo. Ugh. What an extremely difficult decision to make.
I have Stage 1, Grade 3 Invasive Ductal Carcinoma of which, I am told has a “definitive high cure rate with chemotherapy.”
When Dr. Olson explained the pathology report, he kept calling me a survivor. I am going to do my very best to not let him down. Plus, I’ve accepted my scar now, and I think it’s pretty wicked.
The next time you see me, I might have a new hairdo—and that’s a whole other hellish thing that someone facing chemo has to deal with. Trust me, the emotions on each level are next level.
But here’s what I’ve learned:
The human spirit is amazingly resilient.
Warrior Stage is not achieved overnight.
People are generous and willing to help if you let them. Don’t do this alone.
Each diagnosis is unique. Each journey is unique.
Cancer is not a death sentence. (Repeat after me.)
Lean on your provincial health support services; your mental health is vital to your outlook and recovery.
Nothing scares me anymore.
I’ll be writing about this experience in an effort to lend support to anyone going through this and to encourage women to engage in early detection procedures. Almost half of all breast cancers these days are detected in Stage 1, so don’t put off that mammogram, sister friend. It could save your life. #herestothegirls
Next phase: Chemotherapy