Archive | December, 2011

In search of holiday redemption

24 Dec

So a funny thing happened a week ago Friday while I was out Christmas shopping. I ran into the ex who dumped me after my breast cancer diagnosis.

While this was the first time I’d seen in him in about nine months, it wasn’t the first time we’d talked. Ironically, he’d called out of the blue the night before my Cancer Kiss-Off: Getting Dumped After Diagnosis story ran on Today.com. Talk about timing.

Not surprisingly, that initial phone conversation was pretty awkward, but at the heart of it was an apology, which was incredibly therapeutic for me to hear. After all, the guy had disappeared on the eve of my double mastectomy, with nary a phone call or text to see if I’d come out of the thing alive. I don’t remember a lot from that call except that he did say that he was sorry for abandoning me and that he was concerned that his disappearance might have adversely affected my healing.  I remember thanking him for being man enough to tell me that and informed him that I was healing just fine, thanks to my strength and fitness level and all the love and support I’d received from family and friends. I remember, also, that I didn’t cry or scream or whine or call him names, although I did mention that a friend of mine had just the day before referred to his behavior as cold. And perhaps heartless.

Then all of a sudden, that cold, heartless guy was looking up at me as I was coming down an escalator at Pacific Place, a swanky shopping center in downtown Seattle. I got off the escalator and the two of us walked a little ways, stopping in front of the windows of Barney’s. He said I looked good (I figured he imagined I’d still be wearing a hospital gown and pushing an IV pole); I said he did, too. We then indulged in some polite holiday chitchat about who we were shopping for and so on and so forth, until it was time for one of us to address the 5,000 pound elephant lying on the shiny tile floor between us. I told him I still had lots of questions about what had happened and that I often wondered if he’d been in a car accident or arrested or perhaps been stricken with amnesia. What else could prevent a so-called friend — and lover — from picking up the phone to make sure I’d survived surgery? He apologized again and talked about his tendency to “unplug” when things got out of control. He then provided some additional information about troubles he’d had on his end — with work, with family, with money, etc. — qualifying it again and again by saying it was nothing compared to what I’d been through.

We talked for about 15 or 20 minutes and then it was time to go. He told me, for about the fifth time, that he was amazed I was even speaking to him. “It’s been a tough year,” I told him. “And life is short. I don’t want to carry around a bunch of anger and bitterness.” Besides, I said, gesturing towards the holiday shoppers, the decorations, the tree, the tinny carols, “It’s Christmas.”

I walked away feeling pretty strong about the whole thing until I got back to my neighborhood. That’s when I ducked into my local watering hole and downed a martini in about fifteen seconds flat, then text messaged about 17 girlfriends to let them know what had happened. Not surprisingly, I was suddenly very shaky. It wasn’t that this guy was the love of my life and seeing him again had completely done a number on my heart (it had been bruised, to be sure, but not completely battered). It was more that seeing him was like riding a bullet train back to those early days of diagnosis: the punch to the stomach when I learned about the four tumors that lay hidden in my breasts, the gut-wrenching news that I was going to lose my girls. Followed by my hair. And if luck decided to take another bad turn, my life.

Incredibly, he called the following Monday night and we talked again. Along with some mundane updates on where we were with our lives, there were more explanations and more apologies. I explained to him a bit of what I’d been through  — “Yes, my hair looks different because I’m wearing a wig” — without going into too much detail (I was the first person he’d ever known with cancer and I wanted to try to educate him about the disease a little). He talked about how upsetting it was for him to be completely unable to fix things when they go wrong and that he sometimes just had to walk away when things were too broken. Like me, I guess. He alluded to the fact that the cancer was scary to him (yeah, I know what you mean, buddy). Then he told me that he was going to have to live with the guilt over the way he had treated me for the rest of his life.

“Well, I guess my job is done then,” I told him, laughing. It’s hard for me to remain serious about anything for too long — bad relationships, breast cancer, the abuse I suffered as a child. Joking about these things is the only way I can maintain power and control over them.

Then out of the blue, I asked if he would like to work off some of that guilt. “I need somebody to take my air conditioner out of my window,” I told him. “You did it for me last year. Maybe you wouldn’t mind coming over and doing it again?” He was there the next night and had the air conditioner in its box and in the closet before he’d even taken of his coat. He also had a Christmas present for me, a completely unexpected act of kindness (or guilt-induced kindness) that I still find sort of puzzling.

To be honest, the whole thing is sort of puzzling. I know that his disappearance was devastating to me at the time, even though deep down I knew our fledgling relationship was probably doomed from the start, with or without the complication of cancer. But that devastation wasn’t just due to his disappearance. It was also about the diagnosis, the surgery, the loss of my breasts, my health, my wholeness. Nine months later, it’s almost impossible to separate the strings.

The ex and the cancer are so inextricably linked, in fact, that it’s almost as if my breast cancer has suddenly shown up on my doorstep to apologize for fucking me up. Which, I have to say, is not an unwelcome turn of events. Part of me realizes that this is ridiculous, of course; that my ex is a man and nothing more. A scared, guilt-ridden, flawed man who fucked up royally but has enough self-awareness and strength to own up to it. And since it’s Christmas and since I’m a forgiving person, what choice do I have but to proffer some much-needed holiday redemption?

The real question, of course, is will I ever have the strength to forgive myself — my body — for getting sick in the first place? Will I ever be able to show it the same courtesy, the same affection, the same level of love and absolution?

That’s something I’m still working on. And if ever there’s a time for it, I’d say it’s now.

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Celebrity breast cancer twin: reader responses

10 Dec

I got some great responses to the essay I wrote about my “celebrity breast cancer twin” Giuliana Rancic, the E news! cohost who announced last Monday that she was going to have to have a double mastectomy, thanks to the advanced nature of her cancer.

Like me, some readers identified wholeheartedly with the shock, devastation and grief that goes along with knowing you’re going to lose your girls. Others brought up some valid points, for instance, the dearth of good, hard information that accompanied the announcement re Rancic’s forthcoming double mastectomy.

“I don’t have any problem with celebrities discussing their cancer,” wrote Jody here on doublewhammied.com. “The problem is that many of them, including Giuliana, don’t offer the kind of detail that could go a long way toward honestly educating others about early breast cancer. It is not about cancer stage but tumor biology; or the pathology of the tumor. I think to go on TV the moment you’ve stumbled out of the surgeon’s office is a mistake. The morning television shows do little to elaborate.”

I, too, am curious about what type of breast cancer Rancic has (I haven’t been able to find out any information on that), but do know the double lumpectomies that she underwent in October weren’t able to gain clear margins, hence the decision to move forward with the double mastectomy. 

Oddly enough, I got into a discussion regarding Rancic’s cancer with my breast cancer surgeon as she was removing my chemo port the other day (anything to keep my mind off the digging going on over on my right side). I wondered aloud if Rancic might have invasive lobular carcinoma (“my” cancer) because she had it in both breasts (ILC has a tendency to show up in tandem, aka, the old “double whammy”). My breast cancer surgeon wondered if it might be invasive ductal carcinoma since they initially tried to eradicate it with lumpectomies and radiation.

I guess that makes me an official breast cancer wonk. But I’m not alone.

Vanessa wrote to say she’s glad celebrities are coming forward about their breast cancer, but they’re not sharing enough. “I must admit I am a little upset that they aren’t talking about anything but the surgery,” she wrote. “What about the chemo and the radiation? … People need to understand that this is not a ‘take a pill and feel better in the morning’ type illness.”

And MaryBeth felt that Rancic’s “no big deal” attitude — not to mention her youth, beauty and privileged lifestyle — made it tough for the rest of us schmucks.

“It’s a total nightmare and underselling it like it’s some cool right of passage for the righteous, rich and beautiful does more harm than good for those of us everyday schlumps who have to schlep through it without the makeup artists, personal trainers, stylists, etc.,” she wrote.

As one of those everyday schlumps, I get what you’re saying, MaryBeth.  But for me, the bottom line is Rancic – beautiful or not, rich or not, primped and pampered and styled to within an inch of her life or not — is still losing her breasts. She may have better doctors, plastic surgeons, health care, physical therapy, makeup artists, life partners, publicity, etc, but she’s still going to wake up with those horrible drains attached to a flat chest covered with bandages and bruises and not much else. She’s going to have a wonderful erogenous zone replaced by a useless Dead Zone. And if she is able to have a baby (I think this is still on the table), she certainly won’t be able to nurse it.

So yes, she may be better off than the rest of us. But in many ways — important ways — she’s in the exact same boat as all of us, crossing those same choppy, dark, terrifying seas.

Anyway, that’s my rant for the day. As always, thanks for reading and writing and best to you all, especially those newly diagnosed women I’ve talked to recently. You are strong and brave and beautiful and absolutely capable of getting through this breast cancer crap (and, believe me, it is crap, whether you’re a star or a starving freelance writer). I believe in you and am here for you whenever you need me.

Also, one brief, heartfelt note of thanks to Stephanie, a 30-year-old single mom diagnosed in October of last year, who wrote, “I just wanted to send you an email thanking you for your candid insight and sharing your experiences for the rest of us out here … I would like to consider you my twin and think we will win these battles together.”

Cheers to that, twin!

Giuliana Rancic, my celebrity breast cancer twin

5 Dec

I got a call from my editor a couple of days ago, sharing some top secret (sad) news.

Giuliana Rancic, the young and vivacious cohost of E! News who’d appeared on the TODAY show in October to discuss her recent breast cancer diagnosis, was coming back on the show early Monday morning to talk about her latest news. She now had to have a double mastectomy.

Would I like to write about this? my editor asked. Absolutely, I told her.

As someone who only too recently lived through a cast-iron-skillet-to-the-head cancer diagnosis and a double mastectomy (not to mention chemo and radiation), I had plenty to say. (Check out some of my previous essays about breast cancer on Today.com and you’ll see what I mean.)

Here’s how my latest piece, entitled Giuliana Rancic, my celebrity breast cancer twin, starts. As always, thanks for the read.

Some women look to celebrities when they’re pregnant, identifying with famous moms-to-be who are due around the same date.

Others, like me, look for celebrity cancer twins, like E! News host Giuliana Rancic, who just joined the ranks of my small group of hapless — but hardly hopeless — heroes.

Don’t get me wrong; I wouldn’t wish cancer on anyone. But there’s something incredibly powerful about a smart, successful celeb letting down her perfectly coiffed hair to speak openly, honestly and even fearfully about a wretched, life-changing disease that has turned her world — and mine — completely upside down.

Wanda Sykes is another such cancer twin. Diagnosed in February of this year (same as me), the comedian went on Ellen back in September to talk about her double mastectomy. During the interview, which I’ve probably watched a dozen times, Sykes looks healthy and beautiful and strong. More importantly, she’s fazed but still funny, taking potshots at her cancer as if she were back roasting the president at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner.

NBC News’ tough, tenacious Andrea Mitchell is another cancer twin. Ditto for Christina Applegate .

And now there’s Rancic, the 37-year-old funny, self-effacing cohost of E! News and Fashion Police, who discovered her disease while prepping for a third round of in vitro fertilization treatments.

To read the full story click here.  

As always, I’m curious how others deal with their breast cancer. Have any of you adopted “celebrity cancer twins,” people who were diagnosed at the same time you were (with breast cancer or anything else)?

If so, have they inspired you? Helped you get through your ordeal? Made you so angry that you fought even harder? Would love to hear your thoughts.

In search of my new bionic boobs

2 Dec

So today’s a big day for me. In about two hours, I’ll be meeting with my plastic surgeon to see what effect the six plus weeks of radiation had on my left side. I’d say my left breast, but there’s not much breast left. There’s a nipple and skin and scars and scar tissue which has adhered to the muscle wall. Your basic beat-up 10-year-old boy look. But with a lot of luck, I’ll hear today that I’ll soon be getting a breast there, hopefully without too much trouble.

That last is a bit facetious since breast reconstruction is not an easy process, although many people still equate it with cosmetic breast enhancement, which is a much simpler, almost cut-and-dried procedure these days. Reconstruction, however, is much more complicated and can involve multiple surgeries and long recovery times. I’m praying that I’ll be able to get what I call the “easy-peasy” reconstruction method involving tissue expanders and implants.

With this method, you basically get a couple of empty tires surgically implanted behind your chest wall which the plastic surgeon pumps up once a week or so (via some kind of valve) until you have the right size. Then they swap out the full tires for your implants (either saline or silicone – still haven’t decided yet) during surgery. I’ll be doing this with my right side which didn’t go through radiation, but the big question is what will happen with old Lefty.

If radiation has screwed the pooch on my skin there (and according to my radiation oncologist, it does with maybe one third of the women who go through it), the skin won’t be able to stretch enough to hold a tissue expander. Which means they’ll be “borrowing” tissue and muscle from other parts of my body to “build a boob.” (When I first heard this, I immediately pictured them nicking tissue from my butt, my thighs, my right armpit, my left knee and sort of cobbling it all together like a boob hot dog. Such is not the case.)

Instead, they usually borrow tissue from one place, like your belly — especially for women who’ve had kids (instant tummy tuck!). Unfortunately (or not), I haven’t had kids and was told during my first consult that my stomach wasn’t big enough to use for the “build a boob” method, which is officially known as a tram flap. (This is another one of those backhanded cancer compliments, like “You’re so young, you’ll be a great candidate for chemotherapy.” The first time I heard that, I didn’t know whether to cry because of the impending chemo or preen because of the “young” word. At 53, you take what you can get.)

Anyway, since I can’t get a tram flap, they’d be looking elsewhere for that muscle and tissue. On my body, not anyone else’s (I’ve had plenty of sweet offers from friends willing to sacrifice their pot bellies for my new boob but the tissue’s got to come from me).  If I have to go with this method, it’ll mean scrapping my carefully saved (and diligently moisturized) skin and nipple on the left side and replacing it with a hunk of flesh from my latissimus dorsi in a procedure known as a “lat flap.” It’ll also mean multiple surgeries to create a nipple, then tattoo the nipple (and aerola). Plus recovery time for both my front and my back. Plus the loss of muscle on my back, etc. etc. 

None of this sounds like a good time to me. If I had my druthers, I wouldn’t have any of it. Not even the tissue expanders embedded in my chest because from what I’ve heard, they can hurt like a son of a bitch as well as feeling like a couple of rocks attached to your chest (can’t wait to see the expression on some swing dance lead’s face when I shove those puppies up next to him).

But the thing is, I want my boobs back — I miss them, I need them, and yeah, I feel like I deserve them, especially after all I’ve been through these last 10 months.

So, yes, I’ll do what I can do get them — endure the pain of the tissue expanders, suffer through multiple surgeries (if necessary) to build a boob out of bits and pieces of my body. And yes, even shamelessly put up a blog post like this, asking all of you to keep your fingers, legs, toes and whatever else crossed for me today.

As always, thanks for the read and for any and all good wishes you can send my way today. Talk to you soon.