On August 4th, 2010 I went with my mom, a breast cancer survivor of almost 20 years, for our routine mammograms and ultrasounds. On the way to the imaging center, I remember chatting idly with my mom, but the voice in the back of my head just hoped that her tests would come back clear. We had just returned from a family vacation and I was still enjoying a lingering sense of relaxation. Unfortunately, that state of mind ended very quickly for me.
Luckily, my mom’s tests did all come back clear. I, however, kept getting called in for more imaging. I could tell that something was not right. I remember lying on the exam table covered in ultrasound jelly and shivering. I kept thinking of all the articles I had read in magazines or tales from friends and family about breast cancer. I wondered, “Would I now be one of them?” I kept trying to think positively, but it was hard to be my own cheerleader. I felt like the technicians kept looking at me with a “you poor thing” kind of look. The radiologist came in to tell me they would have to do a series of biopsies on three suspicious areas. I felt like they were talking about someone else. As I tried to focus on what she was telling me, my mom held my hand tightly. I barely heard a word. I couldn’t believe this was really happening to me.
The next few weeks were a whirlwind filled with tests and a lot of waiting. I never realized just how difficult waiting could be. I tried to listen to everyone who told me not to worry until there was something worth worrying about, but it was impossible. I waivered back and forth between wanting the results fast and feeling thankful for an extra cancer-free hour where I could pretend to continue living my normal life.
On August 16th, I got a call from my OB/GYN. The biopsies came back positive for multi-focal DCIS in my left breast. I remember my doctor telling me “Just breathe. I know your life just got turned upside down.” Everything around me just came to a screeching halt. All I could think was “please let me see my son (Jack, who is almost 3) grow up.” My friends and family rallied around me immediately. My husband, Jeff, who is a doctor, called every friend and colleague he knew to get as much information as possible.
Over the next month I met with breast surgeons and plastic surgeons. I would go in with a series of questions and leave with even more. All I wanted was for someone to say I’d be ok. No one could give me that assurance. The doctors all kept telling me I was so lucky because they found the cancer so early. I had the hardest time processing that sentiment. I just wanted to think about Jack’s first day of school, not the survival rates between a lumpectomy and a mastectomy. I longed for normalcy and the life I had been living just a month earlier. I talked to various people with a similar diagnosis. They all sounded so incredibly positive and empowered. I felt frustrated for not possessing those same traits. I just felt scared. The anticipation of what was to come was the hardest part for me.
After meeting with various doctors it became clear that I would need to have a mastectomy since the areas of DCIS were too far apart to allow for a lumpectomy. I chose to prophylactically get the right side removed as well. If I had to go through this life altering surgery, I wanted to take away as much of the anxiety and the worry as possible. It was hard to accept that I wouldn’t be able to nurse the future children that Jeff and I hope to be lucky enough to have. But, being alive was clearly more important.
I set my surgery date for September 14th. In the weeks leading up to it, I kept busy at work. I felt like I was floating through those few weeks and still don’t know where they went. The whole experience was so surreal. Friends and family remained at my side and kept me distracted. I contemplated doing something ceremonial before the surgery, but nothing felt quite right. I decided to take pictures of myself the night before just so I would always have the memory of my breasts and not have any regrets. I had spent many years hating my 32DD breasts because of all the clothes I couldn’t wear, and the back and neck pain I dealt with every day. But now, faced with losing them, I seemed to love my breasts even more. I couldn’t imagine a version of me without them. Jeff kept reminding me that he loved me for me and that I would still be the same person.
The morning of the surgery I sat with Jack in his room and hugged him tightly. I couldn’t let go. Jack possessed all the innocence that I felt I had been stripped of. We had explained to Jack that mommy wouldn’t be able to lift him for a few weeks after coming back from the hospital. I knew this was the last time I would be able swing him into the air for a long time, and I needed so badly to hear him laugh and see his face light up. It is what I pictured as I walked into the surgery and it is what got me through the days that followed.
I remember waking up in recovery and thinking, “Ok, I made it through this”. I looked at Jeff and saw tears in his eyes. He held my hand and said “we missed you for a few hours.” I knew at that moment that I had made the right choice. I had heard all sorts of stories about the pain and discomfort I would experience. For me, it felt like I had done way too many chest presses with really heavy weights. The doctors told me the surgery went well and to focus on healing. I tried to do just that, but in the back of my mind, I knew we had a meeting with Dr. Port, my breast surgeon the following week to talk about the pathology results. This was the last big hurdle. I was terrified. I had been told back on August 4th that 90% of biopsies were benign, but I had already been that 10% that was not. I was scared of always being that 10% and having to undergo further treatment.
I went with my mom and Jeff (my personal entourage) to meet with Dr. Port on the morning on September 20th. It was a beautiful sunny day and I just kept thinking, “Please let me be able to celebrate tonight”. She walked in the door with a big smile and said “I have the best news for you!” The pathology came back showing nothing more than DCIS on the left side. I was cancer free and did not need any follow up treatment. I am not sure I have ever cried so hard for joy in my life. I felt like I won the lottery. I knew in that instant that I could deal with the long reconstruction process, any discomfort, even not lifting Jack for a few weeks, because I was going to be fine. The color came back into my face and I felt a tremendous weight lift from my shoulders.
It has now been a month since my surgery. I have just started the expansion process. I know I still have a long road ahead both physically and emotionally, but I have never felt luckier. I know that this experience has changed me forever. Some of how it will manifest is still unfolding. I saw the most amazing acts of support and kindness from friends and strangers and am so grateful to have all of that love in my life. Some mornings I wake up and can’t believe what has happened in such a short time. This experience will forever be a part of my life and I’ll have the scars to remind me. But, I will look at them as the scars of someone who has fought and won and, they will continue to be a source of strength.
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