It took a few days to come to terms with the words that lead this post: I. Have. Breast. Cancer. At first, I allowed them in my head in only a whisper: I have breast cancer. Soon I had to speak to them to myself. I have breast cancer. And now, I have to learn to say them to others. "I have breast cancer." To my son. To our dearest friends. To people I'm acquainted with who matter to me. And here, too, on this blog. I have to own them, let them in. I thought long and hard about posting them here--"should I? shouldn't I?''-- but realized its happening not only to me, its happening to one in six women, and its real; it is the very core of "swimming in quicksand." If breast cancer isn't a swim in quicksand then what is? A doctor said, "you are in a large sisterhood."
You don't see it coming. One day life is normal, and the next its off the cliffside.
Cancer doesn't mail ahead with an arrival date. It does not let you choose whether or when. It arrives--in my case quietly--and settles in. I had a routine annual mammogram on Friday Feb 18. A few days later I was told they needed a closer look at my right breast, the image was "incomplete." I phoned every Washington Radiology office in the area until I found one that had the soonest available appointment. I was at Sterling the next morning, expecting, hoping, praying for a simple resolution, that maybe what they got the week before was out of focus. Nope. They needed a closer look at something they saw that wasn't right, that hadn't been there before.
Here's the moment when you know its all different, that you're getting called out of line. After the mammogram I waited stoically in the little changing cubicle, flipping mindlessly through a travel magazine, anxious but hoping the nurse would return from screening the pic with, "Its all good. See you in a year." Instead, it was the ominous, "I'll take you to a consultation room and the radiologist will meet with you there." Fuck. No. Why me? I could not swallow. The blood drained from my face.
"Do I have to go?" I asked. She ignored me.
The consultation room was serene, of course. There was a plant. Two chairs. A table. An actual window. It had a hopeful ambience. The doctor came in, smiled, shook my hand, asked, "How are you doing?" to which I replied, "I guess not so good. You tell me." "Well," she said, "we do see something suspicious in your right breast. You need to get a stereo-optic biopsy as soon as possible. Its small. Early. But you need to get it looked at. It has some branching and that is sometimes associated with cancer." Clunk. Thud. Kaboom. There was the word. CANCER. It sucked all the serenity out of the room. The plant couldn't help.
I held it together at the front desk as I begged them to find me the next possible biopsy, even if it meant driving to far off wherever. I didn't care. I just wanted it done. They found an 8:45 a.m. appointment the next day, Thursday, in Fairfax. I took it. They offered kind words, told me not to be too worked up, "there are lots of false positives," and assurances that I'd know more "tomorrow."
The car was parked all the way at the other end of this vast suburban lot. I marched to it. When I got inside and shut the door I burst into tears. Scared as shit. Scared out of my ever lovin mind. There was no one to turn to. No one to call. Coincidentally, at that moment my cell rang and it was my son. I started the conversation real cool and then broke down. I didn't want to break down with him, but it happened and I explained why. Looking back, it was probably better to have him in the loop at that stage, as I started to come to terms with ever more grim news. He was the first member of my team.
The second member of the team was my good friend Sally Hosta. She came in from Middleburg, spent the night, and went with me to WRA in Fairfax for the biopsy on Thursday morning. In this test I was stretched out on a table that had a hole in it. The hole was for my once lovely and healthy breast. They hoisted me up and worked under me like the undercarriage of a car up on hydraulics at the Exxon. They numbed it with lidocaine and then went to work on it, dissecting, pulling out bits of the defective tissue to look at more closely, as in: What have we got here?? When they were done they lowered me, bandaged me up and sent me on my way. But before I left one of the doctors said, "It would probably be wise if you contacted a surgeon." Oh, God. Its that bad?
This time I couldn't make it through the waiting room. I saw Sally, pulled her out to the hall, and lost it. Tears spilling. I wanted my Mommy and Daddy, my son. Family. She bucked me up, got me focused. I made a call to people I know at the Washington Hospital Center, who encouraged me to get together all my pictures and to bring them over to WHC. Sally and I organized pictures and reports, packed them in her car, and journeyed from Fairfax to Irving Street. When we arrived, the WHC had a team ready to meet with us. The people there were remarkable. Embracing, really. They analyzed the available material, answered questions, gave advice, and, most of all, hope. Their message was: "We know you are scared, but we see this every day. Its what we do. We can fix you. We are your team." When we left I felt more optimistic. Scared, for sure. But with a fighter's energy.
Friday's Q&A happened only hours after I'd learned the worst was possible. That's why there was a glass of Bourbon not more than 6 inches from my hand on the set. Thanks to Howard Fineman's good character I got through the interview at the Ritz without anyone knowing I was a basket case inside. I emailed him Thursday night saying only, "If I should suddenly go blank or cross-eyed, here's why..." He said he'd be ready to pull up the slack. But it went fine. I'm sure the horror showed subtly on my face but maybe not. Howard, with his wit and charm, was the perfect guest under the circumstances.
The weekend was a series of sinking spells followed by cautious exuberance. And a few glasses of Bourbon, too! Up down up down up down. Sunset always brought the dark thoughts, the tears, dawn brought good cheer, dry eyes and smiles. It was that simple.The Jete Society Dance Party Saturday night was a festive diversion, but--strangely, or maybe not--I focused not so much on the party as on the boobs. Healthy boobs in contrast to my toxic boobs. And I always had the prettiest boobs, too, before they turned on me.
Sally came back into town Sunday night to be able to go with me to the breast MRI. We had an Oscar party. After the show, steeped in eve-of jitters, I walked the dog sobbing. Then I pulled it together. She drove us this morning out to the WHC's Hyattsville imaging center. I was mellow thanks to anti-anxiety meds. Enroute we got the call with the biopsy report: the pathology indicated DCIS, or Ductal Carcinoma In Situ. That was the bad news. But there was optimistic news, too. The cancer was "contained." And small. Caught early. I actually smiled about that. I still had some control over the little fucker. Oops. I have to learn whether its wise to speak rudely about one's own cancer. Don't want to piss it off. I just want it out. Gone.
The breast MRI was an experience out of AVATAR, except I didn't get to leave my pod in another reality as a cancer-free creature. Once again my boobs were the stars, having their own special holes in which to be placed as I stretched out on my stomach, got crowned with some headphones and rolled into the tube. I'm thankful for the Ativan and the jazz. Because otherwise it was WHACK WHACK WHACK, GRIND, GRIND, WHACK, BONG BONG BONG.
Various emotional moments of this experience have reminded me of the story I tell in my book, of the shock of learning my husband had critical pneumonia and would die, the shock when his lawyers announced I would be the defendant in his tax fraud case, the hopeless despair of learning there was no way out of Nathans. Like those situations, this is something I can not run from. I have to stay and fight. As always. Its the only way to get through it. Right? A friend who has fought multiple cancers wrote, "what you've been thru in the past decade will make this challenge a breeze."
No question its strange timing that it is happening at the moment of potential big happiness with the release of my memoir, "Innocent Spouse," which is getting some early good comments. Again, cancer doesn't let you choose whether or when. Publisher's Weekly says "Innocent Spouse" is a summer book to watch. I want to be here for that and be WELL for that. My son and my book. The fact of my son, of being an only parent, will guide the decisions I make regarding surgery. I hope to learn a lot from other women who have walked this path, especially women who, with only one cancerous breast, opted to go with a double mastectomy versus single mastectomy or lumpectomy. Losing both breasts doesn't scare me. I don't run to it as a first choice, but I have it under consideration. Versus years of worry. I need to learn more.
That's the conversation that begins today when I meet again with the Washington Hospital Center "breast health" team. We will have all the reports, all the information, and can focus on what needs to be done and the options available. Sally Hosta is accompanying me again. A first lesson learned: don't go alone.
I have to learn all I can about having breast cancer. I have to be brave. And be thankful, too, that a routine mammogram caught it early.
UPDATE: If you read this post all the way to this point, please also read my follow up here.