After 1 ½ years, I’m ready to talk about my experiences with breast cancer, what I learned about myself, what I really care about (i.e. who I am) and what happens when the chips are down and instincts become more primal. I’ll do it as a diary.
CAUTION and DISCLAIMER: I’m no cancer expert, so please get your cancer facts from a RELIABLE source on this, not me.
When the little lump in my breast started to hurt, I decided it wasn’t going away on it’s own, so I’d better get it checked out. I seriously doubted it was cancer. Cancer doesn’t run in my family. My mother had said about our family medical history, “We don’t get cancer, we get heart disease.” So deep down, I was a little worried, but mostly sure I’d hear it was nothing to worry about.
“I wouldn’t worry too much. Cancer doesn’t usually hurt,” the Nurse Practitioner told me in May. She gave me an 8-1/2 x 11 paper ordering a mammogram. After a fun-filled summer with my boys, Austin & Dallas, then 8 and 6 and my husband, Eric too, when he wasn’t work, work, working… Sidebar: No, we’re not from Texas, those were the only 2 names Eric and I could agree on. They’re actually named after the rock band, AC/DC. Their names are Austin Cesar and Dallas Cole. Anyway, just after my 40th birthday (on 9/11 incidentally) when the slightly painful lump began to “spider”, I had my first mammogram, but only after the machine’s operator promised me that my breasts would returned to their original shapes after she was done flattening each of them in new and uncomfortable ways. She was true to her word.
I don’t remember how I learned the mammogram was “abnormal” . I mean, I knew that going in, but I remember the next step was a surgical biopsy. In other words, we we’re going to take the whole lump out, then find out what it was. I say "we" because I figure their job was to sedate me and remove the lump, my job was to get umpteen blood tests, show up for surgery on an empty stomach and recover. I was pleased to learn after the surgery that the lab report with the biopsy results was expected in by Tuesday of next week.
I didn’t hear from anyone on Tuesday, so I called on Wednesday. No results yet. Same answer on Thursday and my surgeon left town Friday. I was no longer nonchalant. I was simultaneously planning for, and postponing panic. I was not willing to wait until Monday to learn whether or not my children would grow up without a mother. I called the lab about MY results which I paid for. They’d sent them to both my surgeon and regular doctor. My surgeon was gone by the time the paperwork arrived at his office, so my regular family doctor did her best to interpret the report. She’s not an oncologist, but her mother had cancer, so she’s familiar with biopsy reports and patients’ reactions to them.
I understood her to say I had stage 3 breast cancer. Breast cancer goes from stage 1 (outpatient surgery and much worry) to stage 4 (terminal). My research said Stage 3 meant I had a 30% chance of surviving more than 10 years. I probably cried my way home, then I became my mother. I decided to act now, fall apart later. Quick assessment: Best case scenario: radiation and/or chemo therapy followed by a happy ending; Worst case scenario: radiation and/or chemo therapy, I die and my family falls apart. Distracted and overwhelmed, my husband’s business fails so he turns to alcohol then dies from a heart attack. My brilliant children turn from promising futures to lives of drugs, crime and misery. I didn’t know if or I’d die and had little control of that situation anyway, but I knew I had 2 boys and a husband I had to prepare to carry on without me. I developed a plan:
1. Teach my sons to be as self-sufficient as possible given their age. Further, ensure they functioned as a SUPPORTIVE team. One of the best ways to deal with pain and loss is to help someone. They could do this both for each other and for their Dad.
2. Lockdown our home routine. You know, dinnertime, bath time. I even created a list for the grocery store on computer. It included brand names so things would taste more like Mom made. The kids could print the list and just check off what was needed. They already knew how to make rice, noodles and toast; they could heat chicken nuggets, hot dogs and raviolis.
Routine is very comforting, especially when everything else feels out of control. As I write, I realize I did it as much for myself as them.
3. Teach my husband that he can not rely too much on our oldest, Austin, to carry the additional responsibility. This is too much weight for Austin and effectively denies Dallas the chance to learn, contribute and feel capable. In the extreme, Dallas would feel like a burden and Austin would feel burdened. Toss in sibling rivalry, adolescence and puberty… it don’t look don’t. If he were, as he’s been tempted to do, make the older child responsible for the younger one, it gets worse. Typically, the older child often makes unreasonable demands and bad decisions (because they’re children) which they can only enforce through intimidation and force. It’s just wrong on many levels and it doesn’t work. I feared Eric would be so busy and overworked as a single parent, he’d hand too much to Austin because it’s easier. I was the oldest daughter of a single mom whereas my husband was the youngest son of a single parent, so I understand some things he doesn’t.
Eric and I met with my surgeon Monday. He listened patiently and compassionately while I gave several pieces of my mind. He gave me some good news and some bad news. The good news, it was a SIZE 3, not a STAGE 3. Size 3 on a scale that runs from 0 cm to 10 cm is very encouraging. The bad news, I still needed another surgery. It may have spread to my lymph system in which case it would be stage 3 cancer. In the week before the next surgery, I began to implement my plan.
Next: How an agnostic confronts God.