- Breast Cancer
- Normal Stress
- Abnormal Stress
- Seasonal Allergies
My son is entering puberty. He’s going to be in a bad mood for several years and grow more hair. He will be hormonal, irritable and confused but when the years long transformative ordeal is over he will come through it a stronger, calmer and more mature person.
His adolescence coincides with what is supposed to be my second adolescence, or midlife crisis — or middle pause since I’m a woman. I’m also in a bad mood but my hair will thin. I’m hormonal, irritable and confused, but hopefully when my years long transformative ordeal is over I will come through it a stronger, calmer and more mature person. But chances are I will just be more wrinkled and neurotic.
My son and I grapple with the same existential questions: Who am I? What am I supposed to do with my life?
Cliche dictates most people in a midlife crisis buy a sportscar. Or they get divorced, have a makeover or fall in love with youth culture. I think a midlife crisis is the natural outcome from realizing more of your life is behind you than ahead. You think, This is it? But I haven’t ________________ yet. So you make decisions designed to shake things up. But here’s the irony about shaking things up — it teaches you what your limitations are and maturity comes from accepting limitations.
I think the best part of my midlife crisis (so far) is cultivating a what the fuck attitude. I don’t mean the exasperated/befuddled “what the fuck???!” I usually exclaim. I’m talking about fuck it/why not/what the fuck do I have to lose kind of attitude that is remarkably liberating. It enables me to try new things like this hobby called blogging, or sign up to be the oldest student in graduate school this coming fall.
But previous to this I kicked off middle age with something drastic and insane by having a baby. While most of my friends prepare for an empty nest I’m preparing for preschool (again). My daily life has more in common with someone decades younger than me than it does with the lives of my friends. I potty train, play Candyland and know which one is Shimmer and which one is Shine.
We started thinking about having another baby while our oldest son was fighting brain cancer. We even discussed it with him. One day we asked if he’d like a baby brother. He said, “No thanks, we already have one of those.” Then he thought about it and said, “A baby sister might be nice.” He told us we should have more children, that we were the best mom and dad in the world.
Having more children didn’t seem crazy at that time, but it took a few years of fertility treatments before we finally had our daughter. We stuck with it because my husband and I knew one thing for sure — we loved being parents.
For those looking to shake up your shit, I totally recommend having a baby. Nothing adds new life to your life like adding a new like to your life. Plus, it’s the most optimistic thing a person can do. It requires a certain amount of faith in the future. You have to believe things will get better (or at least not worse). We decided to have a new baby at the lowest time of our lives, when we needed to find joy and attempt to lessen our pain.
Those last five words bear repeating because therein lies the optimism: attempt to lessen our pain. This is a very hopeful statement. It recognizes that we could change, over time, the debilitating pain we felt after our son died. The word “attempt” means we still had some strength in us to try something. The word “lessen” is significant because it’s not the word “heal” or “end” or “fix.” It lacks totality, as it’s impossible to fully heal, end or fix the grief after losing a child. However it acknowledges we had some power to change our situation — to make it more or less of what it was — but our pain would never be gone. The words “our pain” need no explanation.
I’m learning that second adolescence is a time to recycle one’s attitude and priorities. A time of physical change and readjustment. A time of questioning and repair.
Inevitably, I think about my mistakes. I can trace back and see several points when I made the wrong decision — my college major, quitting a job/taking the wrong job, not trying this or that. (I also see moments when I made the right choice — marrying my husband, having my kids, taking a risk on this or that). I can’t change the past, but I can attempt to lessen the impact of my mistakes (there’s that word again). I can rid my life of things that aren’t useful anymore — I’ll keep what I use and use what I keep. I’ll also detach (physically and emotionally) from people who drain me. I no longer have the patience or energy to pretend to be anything I’m not.
Oh, and I faced a breast cancer diagnosis this year (the ultimate Fuck You). Getting diagnosed with cancer puts everything into focus. It’s like perspective on speed. It forced me to face myself, let go of certain things and make decisions I had been putting off.
But all this middlepause makes me tired. From now on my motto is more midlife, less crisis.
It’s been a week.
Here’s what I remember — Everyone is very calm in pre-op. The nurses have wonderfully sweet voices. Anesthesia has the biggest team, and I was visited by no less than three anesthesiologists who told me they would “take care of me” in the operating room. My surgeon is a rock star, a notion that is reinforced by her using a Sharpie to sign her name on the boob she would remove from my body. I remember scootching from the gurney to the table. Then that’s it.
There’s an empty space where my breast used to be. I refused to look at it for two days. When I finally did I thought, “So that’s what it looks like to get mauled by a tiger.”
Except there was no tiger. There was a scalpel.
I accidentally looked at it on the second day. It’s ugly. I’m not going to lie. It’s purple and scarred and folded/caved inward. There are sutures and lines and bumps and dents. And it hurts. It fucking hurts all up in my armpit. I’m on Norco for the pain.
My husband looked at it on the first day. He said, “Baby, remember it’s a start. When this is over you’ll have healthy and beautiful bionic boobs.”
I read about a phenomenon that occurs, mostly in veterans and amputees, who don’t fully realize a part of their own body is missing called Phantom Limb syndrome. This is how I feel walking around the house. I’m sure it sounds strange but I don’t feel like I’m missing a breast. I feel like normal — until I accidentally brush my hand along my chest and I don’t find a breast there. It’s like I need a neutral third party — my hand — to tell my brain something is missing. My brain can’t seem to figure it out on it’s own.
A good friend said if I want to spread the tiger story around town she would back me up. So next time you see me ask about the safari. Ask me what it’s like to fight a tiger and win.
I got to kill the fucking tiger. And I have the scars to prove it.
So I knew this day would come. I was told two months ago it would happen. That’s a long time to prepare. Or, if you’re me, it’s a long time to ignore reality.
The reality is I have DCIS breast cancer. Just one boob. The one on the right. So the next time you see me you can stare. It’s okay. I’d stare at your boobs too if you told me where your cancer was.
DCIS is the kind of breast cancer you want if you ever get breast cancer. At least this is what my doctor told me. It’s non-invasive, which means it’s confined to the breast and doesn’t metastasize in the body. They call it stage 0. It is 99% curable.
The cure is a mastectomy.
Whoa, right? Seems drastic for something some doctors call “pre-cancer.” I think so too. But the alternative is watching and waiting for it to become invasive cancer and this seems even more stressful. I’m not a cross-my-fingers-and-hope-for-the-best kind of patient. I’m a do-my-research-and-find-the-best-experts kind of patient. Which is why I’m having everything done at a major teaching hospital instead of a cornfield.
So here’s the plan. This Saturday is my birthday. I plan to get drunk and eat ice cream. I bought Malibu Rum and Sangria so I can pretend I’m on vacation, and a tub of organic mochaccino ice cream. In my drunken and dairy-bloated state I’ll probably convince a photographer friend of mine to take classy photos of my cleavage. (Is there any other kind?) Sunday I will detox and then it’s onward to Mastectomy Monday. I bought new pink satin button front pajamas and something called a Brobe, so I’m set. After I come home stoned on opiates I will lay in bed and watch Oscar screeners and possibly binge watch Game of Thrones. I hear I’m among the three people left on earth who never saw an episode.
I’m not happy about being out of commission for a week. Pretty sure chaos will ensue. But that’s minor and temporary. What I can’t shake is the feeling I’m running out of time. I’m not talking about mortality. I’m talking about my wholeness. The clock is ticking on the amount of time I have left to feel like “me.” After Monday, I don’t know what I’ll look like or how I’ll feel. After Monday everything will be different.
But until then, it’s booze and ice cream.
Most of us are lucky enough to be born without flaw or blemish. We come into this world about as perfect as we’re ever going to be. Our bodies grow and develop, we reach our peak, then we age and decline. It happens to all of us. Along the way we acquire scars, bruises and fractures. Every one of these is a story unto itself.
When I was two I broke my collar bone after falling off a kitchen chair. My family was within arms reach but they were too busy applauding me for sitting by myself “like a big girl.” I then went a long time without any major body damage until I turned thirty-two and had my gallbladder removed. The operation left two tiny slit-like scars on my abdomen and one inside my belly-button. Coincidentally, my paternal grandmother also had her gallbladder removed at the same age, but she died days later from a post-surgical infection.
At thirty-three I became pregnant and experience the body altering process all pregnant women go through, until the end, when I had an emergency cesarean after my water broke and my body had no idea how to coordinate labor. I developed sepsis and, I swear, I never saw people move so fast in a hospital before as my son was cut from my body within minutes of me spiking a fever. I was left with a beautiful baby and a not-so-beautiful gash extending from hip to hip across my lower abdomen. I would go on to have two more cesareans, both over the same scar, when I gave birth to my next son and daughter.
Sometimes our scars tell a dramatic story of how we skirted what would have been a catastrophic outcome had the event occurred a hundred years ago. Sometimes our broken bones and scars are minor, the result of accidents, and heal nicely on their own. Either way, they mark us up like a map representing the moments when our body altering experiences become life altering.
I have one such body and life altering moment coming up very soon, and I have yet to make a decision about the full extent of how it will leave its mark on me.
While the medical community debates whether Ductal Carcinoma In-Situ is really breast cancer, pre-cancer, or should be downgraded to dysplasia — the treatment remains the same — cut it out, slice it off, remove those bad cells from the body. DCIS is viewed as a potential threat that could someday become invasive cancer. The treatment is nip it before it has a chance to become threatening.
In other words, I have to have surgery and the date is coming up fast. The great news is I won’t need chemo or radiation. FYI, there is nothing medically to suggest I was at risk for bc. You have to go up two generations to a distant aunt before you find anyone in my family with it; I tested for all nine known genetic mutations that contribute to bc and I have none of them. In fact, my medical profile would suggest I have a low risk.
Yet here I am.
The decision I face is what to do about the other breast. Many women opt to have both removed so they never have to worry about breast cancer again. I’m not sure I have the courage to do this. It’s wrenching enough to part with one. (Is it courage? I’m in the thick of wrestling with this decision and I can’t tell if I’m approaching it from bravery or fear).
I’m an extremely adaptable person, but I also have difficulty letting go of things. Even things that are better off gone from my life, I tend keep them longer than I should. I also have a hard time making decisions because I’m overwhelmed by seeing all the possible consequences, and I wind up frozen. I would love if/when a difficult decision arises that the right path be self-evident. I prefer no-brainers. (Who doesn’t). I guess this is wishful thinking — life rarely smacks me with no-brainers.
Thankfully, no matter what I choose I will come through this looking pretty much normal again. I’m lucky the advancements in plastic surgery can create a new silhouette that resembles my natural one. I’m lucky I don’t live a hundred years ago.
So the cartography of my body will be drastically redrawn. There will be new scars, both physically and emotionally. The landscape will change and be replaced with something artificial.
All this is swimming around in my head where I’m drowning in my own thoughts, and meanwhile my surgeon’s office wants an answer from me today. I still don’t know what I’m going to tell them.
I definitely like one of my boobs more than the other one. I think I always have. The left one, whom I’ll call Lady Lefty, gave me more trouble over the years. She’s about a cup size larger than Lady Righty so she’s heavier and gets in the way more often. She itches and has these long random hairs that need to be plucked every once in a while.
She has more stretch marks and a red dot that marks her North Pole, like a compass. And every time I get my period Lady Lefty complains for days. I always thought she was a troublemaker but it turns out I’m wrong.
Lady Righty, the comfortably-sized non-complaining boob was just diagnosed with two sites of DCIS. The whole thing came as a surprise. I had a clinical exam in November and my Doc said everything felt fine. I had a routine yearly mammogram right after the New Year. They called me back for more views and magnifications, citing calcifications. Don’t worry, they said, most of these turn out to be nothing. They called me back for a stereotactic biopsy. Don’t worry, they said, most of these turn out to be nothing. Today they called with the diagnosis. Don’t worry, they said, it’s non-invasive stage 0 grade 2 breast cancer with an excellent prognosis — just a coupla months of utter shit first.
I’ve been through utter shit before but as a caretaker, not a patient. My son’s cancer was hopeless from diagnosis. Mine’s not. He was a child. I’m not. He suffered greatly. I won’t. His fate broke my heart and my spirit. Mine won’t.
I’m really good at keeping things in perspective. My life experience has taught me how to do this at an expert level. My thoughts are with a friend who is a decade younger than me with four young children, who is a vegan and a pilates instructor, fighting stage 2 invasive breast cancer and faces six months of chemo, then surgery, then another six months of chemo. I know so many women who went through breast cancer — different stages, different treatments, different ages, both recently and years ago — and ALL are still here. I understand mine was caught incredibly early. I’m so amazed by the technology that could find something sinister when it’s only millimeters. I keep reminding myself I’m actually lucky. (Well, lucky would be not getting cancer in the first place but like I said I’m trying to keep things in perspective.)
So…I’m sorry Lady Righty, you were my favorite but we will likely part ways. Me and Lady Lefty will miss you but persevere. (Or, Lady Lefty may join you in that great hospital dustbin in the sky — TBD). My husband will also miss you, but he loves me more than the sum of my parts.
(In case you were wondering — no family history.)