So today is my one year “cancerversary”. One year ago today, I got a phone call from the radiologist (aka Dr. Debbie Downer), the woman who initially found the three masses in my chest via ultrasound and then performed the biopsy on those (and a fourth one she discovered at the time) a few days later.
Needless to say, the phone call did not go well. For starters, she used the word “positive” which for anyone NOT waiting to hear back about a cancer diagnosis is a perfectly fine word. If you happen to be waiting to hear whether you’re going to maybe die or lose some of your body parts, though, “positive” isn’t all that, well, positive. And as it turned out, I was a very positive patient, with all four of the masses in my two breasts coming up roses for invasive lobular carcinoma, otherwise known as ILC, or “evil cancer” as my breast cancer surgeon likes to call it.
I still have the notes from that horrible conversation, slip-cased in a plastic sleeve and stuffed into a giant three-ring binder. In fact, I have everything from this past year stuffed into that binder — scribbled notes from phone calls with nurses, social workers and breast cancer survivors; MRI reports where they talk about my “unremarkable uterus” and my “grossly normal bowel”; pages and pages of printouts of upcoming doctors’ appointments; get well cards from friends and colleagues and my wonderful nieces and nephews (I still love 9-year-old Charlie’s post-surgery card the best: “Doctors are dumb,” he wrote. “You are so not sick. Also you have a lot of sex in you!”).
Somewhere amidst all of the pathology reports and medical handouts and hospital bracelets (yep, I saved those, too), I even have a lint roller sheet covered with the last vestiges of my dearly departed blonde hair. After shaving my head, my scalp itched like crazy so my wig guy said to just take the rest off with masking tape. Somewhere in a closet, I even have one of my drains and the port they took out of my body three months ago (both completely scrubbed up and sterilized, of course).
I’m not sure why I’ve saved all of this stuff, but it just seemed important at the time. I guess I wanted some kind of record of my awful year — my annus horribilis — and at present, this notebook, these odd bits of breast cancer detritus, are it. Now that I’m three months out of treatment, I have very few things to save in my notebook. Instead, I’m finding myself taking things out and reading through them, trying to decipher what the hell, exactly, happened to me over the course of these last 12 months.
While I was living it — those first tearful appointments with the surgeon, the indignity of the drains following the double mastectomy, my three months of chemo and then those long six plus weeks of radiation — I remember telling myself that I would never forget a single moment of the torture I was going through. That the anger, the shame, the pain, the fear, the weakness, the “otherness” (with my bald head and flattened chest I felt like a space alien half the time) would be seared into my brain as deeply as the radiation burns seared my chest.
But the memories have already begun to fade — either due to medication or stress or chemo brain or the body’s miraculous ability to do what it needs to do to heal itself. Truth be told, there are probably some things I shouldn’t remember. Although if I want to, all I have to do is open my notebook (or close my eyes and begin to type) and a lot of it comes flooding back.
Not that I’m anywhere near done with my great breast cancer adventure. Reconstruction — in some form — still looms ahead. One day, maybe even some day this summer, my flattened gnarled chest will no longer look like one of the talking trees from The Wizard of Oz or that old WWII cartoon, Kilroy Was Here, whenever I lean forward. Instead, I’ll have boobs and cleavage and fat covering my very visible ribcage. If there’s a god, I may even get some feeling back in my skin and nipples. Or finally be able to get rid of the weird constricting pain in my chest and armpits that comes from scar tissue and adhesions, pain that I and other breast cancer survivors use nicknames to describe: Gulliver chest, rubber band pits, twang arm.
Not that things are all that bad. As I sit here typing and ruminating on the dark days that are behind me, I can definitely see progress. I seldom cry when I talk about the cancer or my lost girls anymore. I’m no longer a chemo invalid, hobbling around my apartment, hanging on to chairs for support and using a wrench to open water bottles. I no longer have to slather Aquaphor healing ointment onto a lobster red chest or pop Vicadin for the deep burning pain that comes with radiation. These days, I’m back out running and swing dancing and tap dancing and doing everything I did before (including making poor food choices — still need to work on that). These days, I’m no longer a bald space alien — I’ve got at least an inch worth of hair on my head and a pixie “haircut” that looks almost intentional. Granted, my hair’s a completely different color and a completely different texture than it was before (it’s much more gray, for instance), but it’s a start. Most importantly, it’s not going to start coming out in handfuls the way it did 10 days after that first dose of taxotere and cytoxan.
The bottom line is I’m still here. And the cancer’s not. At least it wasn’t the last time I had my tumor markers checked. The doctors won’t tell me I’m cured or cancer-free (at least not for a few more years), but I can say that I’ve made it a year past diagnosis, which is more than I expected when the phone call from that oh-so-grim radiologist came in, 12 months ago today. And while breast cancer’s hardly something to celebrate, getting through the diagnosis, the surgery, the chemo, the radiation and yes, even the “recovery” process, most definitely is.
So even though it’s only 10 a.m., I’m tempted to pop the cork on one of the champagne bottles in my fridge. Or perhaps make myself a martini or Manhattan or mimosa (anything but a chemo cocktail).
I’ve made it a year, folks. I’ve made it a year.