Today is the second anniversary of the day I received my breast cancer diagnosis. Here’s an excerpt from my upcoming memoir, Believe about the moment when I got the news…
So, as it turns out, the very first person I tell that I have breast cancer is my three-year-old daughter. Which isn’t all that surprising if you know me.
It’s one of those glorious early fall days in Arizona, where the blazing heat is finally starting to lift, and it’s actually cool enough to be at the park in the middle of the afternoon after months stuck inside air-conditioned rooms…
I gently stretch back, close my eyes and turn my head up toward the soft sunlight streaming through the sail shade that sweeps over the playground to protect the kids from the scorching Arizona sun. I breathe in the fresh air and listen for a moment to the birds chirping softly in the distance…
Hugging Arya tightly to my chest, I kiss her sweet soft cheek, and then pick up my phone and snap a selfie of our smiling faces against the backdrop of green grass and blue sky. My reddish-brown hair windswept across my face. The transition lenses in my glasses darkened from the bright sun. A few wrinkles visible on my forehead and by my mouth. A full smile revealing straight white teeth – the product of four years of braces in high school and multiple extractions before that. The tanned olive skin on my perfectly healthy-looking chest slightly pink from the sun’s heat. Our hands gently grasping the swing’s chain. My Iphone’s live mode even captures our gentle swinging in the breeze on this perfect, perfect afternoon. The snapshot mirrors how I’m feeling in this brief slice of time – full of joy, hope, excitement; looking forward with great expectation to whatever may be coming, even though on some level, I already know it’s cancer….
My phone rings. A local number that’s not in my contacts. I answer immediately, thinking maybe it’s SimonMed calling to let me know I can come get the biopsy report now. The moment of calm is gone and I’m back to obsessing about that biopsy.
But it’s Dr. Nakamura, the high-risk breast specialist I’ve been seeing since my first biopsy two years ago. That one revealed a benign mass of hardened milk from breastfeeding.
“You have ductal carcinoma in situ,” she says. “The earliest form of breast cancer.”
I take a breath as my mind races. I ask whatever questions I can think of as I stand incongruously on the wood-chipped playground with my cell phone to my ear. We talk for a few minutes about next steps. She says she’ll work on getting me an appointment with a surgeon in her group and call me back a little later. She says she’s calling from her personal cell phone and I can call her back with any other questions I think of.
The fact that I have the doctor’s personal cell phone number, that she’s working on a Friday afternoon to make sure I get in with the surgeon first thing Monday morning, makes me feel special and just a little scared. Suddenly everything is different, even though I’m standing in the same park from just a moment ago, the same busy, crazy life. Now I have Cancer. Will I keep going to class? Will I keep going to work? Will I be able to take a break from it all?
I know in an instant that if it’s a choice I’m given and covered by my insurance, I will get a double mastectomy. My double D’s have served their purpose – breastfeeding my three baby girls. They have also entertained my husband…and more than a few other boys. I was blessed with really good boobs. But I have no qualms about kissing them goodbye. I’ve heard too many sad stories of women who take care of one breast cancer only to get another one a year later, five years later, 10 years later. I’ve seen too many women die of breast cancer. I’m not going to mess around with it. I won’t take that risk. I don’t need my breasts to live a long, healthy life, and I won’t let them kill me.
Almost exactly 10 years ago, my mom called to tell me her biopsy had revealed early-stage breast cancer. I remember her telling me that it would have been a full five years before those microcalcifications that showed up on her mammogram would have formed into a mass large enough to feel under the skin. That struck me. And I’ve always had mammograms as recommended since then. My mom was fine. And I will be too.
Since they caught her cancer so early, she had a lot of choices in her treatment. She could do just a lumpectomy to take out the cancerous chunk, a single mastectomy of the affected breast, or a double mastectomy. I told her if it was me, I’d chop them both off and get a brand-new set.
But it wasn’t my choice to make 10 years ago. Now it is. And my mind hasn’t changed. I’m ready to say goodbye to my 45-year-old saggy cancer-hiding boobs and replace them with a smaller, perkier set. I’m tired of always monitoring for this hidden danger. I want to be done with it. I’m almost grateful that the uninvited guest has finally arrived at the party, so I can be done waiting, start fighting, and kick that cancer out so fast it won’t know what hit it.
I end the call and look over at my little girl, now gleefully gliding down the slide.
I scoop three-year-old Arya up in my arms and start walking toward the car, still reeling from the news. My mind tries to put together the appropriate sentence to share this news with the important people in my life. I’m outgoing, talkative and direct, but the phrase “I have cancer” doesn’t roll easily off the tongue.
Some people ruminate for weeks over how to tell loved ones – particularly children – their cancer news: how best to word it, how to protect them. But I can’t keep this news inside. This little girl takes baths with me regularly and is constantly asking me all sorts of questions about bodies and how they work. I think for sure she’ll be a nurse or doctor someday. I’ve never seen a kid so fascinated with the human body. She’s seen my boobs a million times, and she came with Mike and I to the biopsy appointment two days ago. She knows I’m waiting for the results about the “ouchie in my boobie.”
My tone is serious but optimistic as I tell her that the doctor just called to tell me that the ouchie in my boobie is in fact, Cancer, the bad stuff we were worried about. I quickly reassure her that it’s good they caught it early and that they will take it out with a surgery, just like the hip surgery I had a few years ago, where they fixed a torn labrum arthroscopically, and the three C-sections where they successfully delivered my three beautiful baby girls into the world.
“Mommy’s going to be just fine,” I say brightly, to reassure us both.
She listens intently and takes in the news with an appropriate frown of sadness, a few questions, but no reason to believe this will dramatically change my life or hers. You get what you expect.
Did I get breast cancer because I was expecting it, monitoring for it? I can’t help but wonder. Was it working the night shift that threw off my circadian rhythm and caused the cells in my breast to mutate? Just last week I learned the specifics about how cancer cells are formed in the human body in my pathophysiology class. And now the black and white terms from the digital online textbook have become personal, invading my own body. Necrosis. Mutation. My cancer is non-invasive, contained in the duct. But that could change quickly. Cancer doesn’t like containment.
I move through my shift at the hospital and the rest of the weekend in a sort of dazed stupor. Outwardly, I smile and laugh and joke. But inwardly I scream, “Don’t you know I just found out I have breast cancer?! How can you expect me to still clean up shit, study patho, act like everything is normal?”
I wish that everyone could just see that I desperately need a hug and someone to listen to me without having to say the words, “I have breast cancer.” I wish they could just tell. I wish I wore a sign on my chest.
And there is also an underlying thought that I have a really minor kind of cancer and maybe I don’t even deserve much sympathy anyway.
I’m not scared of dying, and it’s relatively easy for me to feel optimistic. I see the silver linings, but I still feel panicky and confused – and also so very tired. I wish I could just curl into a little ball and go to sleep for a very long time. And at the same time, I feel led to shout a message of hope from the mountaintops. I have this vague sense of excitement about what’s to come. And I pray that God will use this challenge in some amazing way.
On Monday morning, I walk into the office of my new breast surgeon, Dr. Sommer Gunia, feeling like it’s the first day at a brand-new job, school or adventure. As I prepare myself a cup of tea at the cozy drink station set up in the comfortable lobby, I can’t help but notice the little wooden sign on the table: Cancer touched my breast, I kicked its ass. It makes me smile. I quickly snap a picture of it. Cursing isn’t really my style – never was, even before I was a Christian. But I like the strength of these words, and I like the past tense of the phrase, like it’s already done.
I’m ready for battle. But calm and almost joyful.