One More Night

Apparently it’s a thing to have the first big cry at the one week mark. Well it’s a thing for me anyway. I was appropriately unhappy with the diagnosis and have had short “spells” (eye roll) of anxiety, but no tears. I knew it was a sort of denial. But I guess one doesn’t know how thick the denial is until being faced with the cold, hard truth. Tomorrow is my appointment with the surgeon. (I politely badgered the receptionist until they found me an earlier appointment.) Even before having my own first-hand experience, I knew that surgery would be a given in this situation. I hadn’t felt nervous about the appointment. But tomorrow I meet the woman who will be hacking (with utmost respect for her skill and finesse) Bob out of my body. My breast. And she’ll probably take the other breast with it. Because I AM OVER LUMPS.

Also, tonight was the night I was supposed to go to my first support group meeting. One realm of my psyche was all on board. I knew it would be a good thing. I would learn what to expect from my first appointment and what questions I should ask. But an equivalent part of me felt with certainty that I did not belong there. I would be a poser. I know they told me I have breast cancer and I believe them, but I am not one of those women. I would be an intruder on their hallowed ground. And yet another facet of my mind knew full well that I simply DID NOT WANT TO FACE THE REALITY. I had one more night, damnit. One more night to be the the person I was before I became the person with cancer. I didn’t want to spend that evening with women who were suffering or bald or putting on their brave face and sharing their benevolent advice with me. (Instead, it turns out, I spent the evening in the fetal position, drinking wine in bed.)

The timing on all this is super inconvenient, by the way. Tomorrow also happens to be the day before Thanksgiving. In my optimistic denial state, I committed to making a few dishes for the big dinner we will be attending with my in-laws four hours away. And I’m getting the feeling that my Christmas present will be the least fun type of boob job ever. But, as I was weeping, my husband held me tight and first said, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry you have cancer.” [I weep harder.] And then, “You know no one will be upset if we don’t show up with a raw vegan pumpkin pie.” [I guffaw juicily through tears and snot.] He is so right.

Whatever, Vladimir

I received a package in the mail from the nurse manager of the breast center where I was diagnosed with breast cancer four days ago. (Wow, still smarts a little to say that.) It is a book called “Be a Survivor” by Vladimir Lange, MD. Now, I don’t know Vladimir. He might be a lovely person, but he can step aside. Really? They couldn’t find a medically, emotionally, and experientially qualified WOMAN to write (and title) this road map to my new disease and how to survive it??? RUDE. Also rude for anyone to remind me so blatantly that I do, in fact, have breast cancer. I was doing just fine in Denialville with my delightful breakfasts of Ghirardelli dark chocolates.

Also enclosed in the package was a flier for a local breast cancer support group. The nurse had mentioned this previously in a phone call so I was expecting it. But combined with Vladimir and his bossy directive, I started to feel panicky. Too real, too real, alert alert alert! I left my cranky daughter with my tired husband and sped to my new boot camp gym with a winded sensation that felt like I was already doing godforsaken burpees. On the precipice of my first genuine meltdown, I collected myself and forced myself to go inside.

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Side bar: Fitness and I have a tricky relationship. It’s on-again-off-again really. I have gained and lost the same 10-20 pounds since adolescence and have a pretty rotten self image. I’ve tried and successfully completed a variety workout programs, complete with transformation pictures to prove it. But they always come to an end and then I struggle to maintain a normal healthy lifestyle. I have two different Instagram fitness accounts that I never actually posted in because the pendulum swung back the other way before I felt lean/sculpted/satisfied enough to make the big reveal. Healthy. Eventually, I became fed up with the “fitstagram” collective, and armed with the great wisdom imparted by motherhood and my mid-30s, I tried to start a new humor blog about health and self acceptance no matter your appearance. But that didn’t get off the ground either because it wasn’t genuine — I did not accept myself. I really only wanted to humor-shame fitness obsessed people to make myself feel better. Yeah. Embarrassing. But insightful? (Hindsightful?) So over the last six months, I found myself descending into a pit of self-loathing about my appearance, about the fact that all my pants were too tight, that everything seemed to jiggle, but additionally, that I cared so much! I just wanted to be normal and happy and active and healthy and secure! I wanted to model all that for my daughter so she wouldn’t grow up with the same crazy that I have! Clearly this was cause for more of the emotional eating that started all of this in the first place. And that is when I found Burn Boot Camp. (This is not an ad. Well it sort of is, but no one is paying me!)

I signed up for a 30-day free trial, which started October 1 at their grand opening in my town. It was extremely challenging but interesting, and I had never done anything quite like it. There is a community there that is supportive and motivating. It took almost four entire weeks to see or feel any sort of progress (probably because of my chronic-dieting-related geriatric metabolism), and I spent a significant portion of that time hobbling around with muscle-related soreness. However, just before the cutoff to sign a contract with “founders” rates, I noticed some gratifying improvements. I didn’t magically look bikini-competition-ready, but I could hold a plank a little longer, lift a little bit heavier, and while the metrics only changed a little, the psychological lift of accomplishment and sisterhood had me energized and hooked. So I signed the contract on October 30. Literally the very same day that Bob showed his ugly face on a mammogram and ultrasound.

The point is that running off to boot camp is not some subtle humble brag… restrain your eye rolling. Or not. Gym selfies annoy me as much as the next non-fitness-model, but who knows, I might post some one day because I HAVE CANCER AND I CAN DO WHAT I WANT. But that place is sort of my sanctuary right now and part of my journey … OK, I hear how that sounds;  eye rolls permitted.

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Exercise proved beneficial for my psyche. It no longer felt like a tunnel of doom was closing in around me. I’m super glad that I made myself go to the gym. Hopefully, I will remember to turn to it in the future, rather than full-on ostrich my head in the sand with stress and anxiety, as I often do. But I did come home, shove Vladimir and his platitudes under a pile of papers, and eat chocolate for dinner. And I’m fine with that, too.


Meet Bob

My boobs are FULL of lumps. My first biopsy was at age 32 and then I had a lumpectomy at age 34. Both of those were benign fibroadenomas. After that I began to pay more attention and I got to know my various lumps. At age 37 I had a new painful lump, which was a first, but he looked fine on mammogram and ultrasound. Then, just before my 39th birthday, I accidentally found a different type of lump while soaping my pits in the shower. This one felt roundish, similar to my others, but less mobile, more stuck to his surroundings. I didn’t like that. A mammogram and ultrasound captured him and he looked as sketchy as he felt, and as a little surprise, a second irregular mass was found that looked nothing like a fibroadenoma. Neat. I named them Bob and Norman, respectively, and began an interminably long eight day wait for my biopsy appointment.

In truth, for the last 10 years, I have felt like it was only a matter of time before one of my lumps would be trouble, and thus wasn’t shocked when I received the results of the biopsy, along with a brand-new diagnosis of breast cancer. In the 1950s, my mom’s mom dealt with an abundance of breast lumps and eventually had a preventative bilateral mastectomy which was apparently the medical recommendation at the time despite the lack of malignancies or bad genetics. My mom was diagnosed with ductal carcinoma for her 60th birthday (rude), which was caught early and she chose to have a bilateral mastectomy. That was all the treatment she needed to be cured, and she just celebrated her 10-year survivorship anniversary. She and her fabulous new set of girls are doing fantastic!

Sure there was a good bit of anxiety and worry while waiting for the results. I’ve been through it before, but this go-round felt different. The lumps were different, the images were different, the look on my doctor’s face was different. Still, even though I felt with near-certainty the news would not be good, I had moments of peace. No one wants to get cancer, obviously, but I had a good run with my boobs. I was able to nurse my only child for 16 months. And while that wasn’t all rainbows and unicorns (biting, clogged ducts, waking up twice every night for a year…), I did cherish that. I have never been particularly fond of or attached to my chest otherwise. I mean, the girls are quite small yet somehow also saggy, and I have always thought that they sat too low on my chest. Sort of like the Renaissance sculptures of women that were based off male models with oddly shaped mammary organs slapped on seemingly haphazardly at the last minute. (I’m looking at you Michelangelo.) And the dormant rebel in me has always sort of wanted to shave my head so the hair loss part of treatment didn’t scare me either. The waves of panic came from the thought of metastases, the assault of chemo, the scorch of radiation, and at the most morbid, leaving my daughter without a mother. But I had immediately decided ahead of time, with the encouragement and support of my husband, that even the lowest grade cancer would be the end of my natural breasts. Before this scare, I was already understanding my Gamma’s choice to have them taken off, even without cancer. Always a background worry that a lump would go rogue.

Despite how prepared I told myself I was, it still wasn’t super fun to officially hear that Bob was, in fact, cancer. Grade 1 invasive ductal carcinoma and DCIS. (Not to brag but I have two types.) Norman turned out to be just fine. My voice wavered and my eyes misted but that passed quickly and the next two days were spent in a weird state of calm. Mere minutes after the diagnosis we played our first “cancer card” and my husband canceled a few patients and we jetted off to, wait for it, TARGET. We bought delicious holiday lattes and wandered the aisles giggling with each other about things that probably weren’t actually funny. It felt like we were in our 20s again, being silly on a date. (We truly did go on dates to Target, being the incomeless medical students that we were at the time.) I meticulously mixed and matched a whole new set of bedding. Oh, how I love you, Opalhouse and Nate-Berkus-for-Target.

But life goes on. Our daughter needed to be picked up from preschool. I reluctantly pulled the cord on the pleasant delirium and allowed myself to waft back down to reality. And the reality is that I have breast cancer. If you’re going to have breast cancer, this is one of the “good” ones. And now I’m ready for the plan. I’m usually not much of a planner, but I also despise the unknown. I’d rather be in a certifiably bad situation than in limbo. Which is maybe why I felt so jolly at Target. I had been given the answer, and while it wasn’t what I hoped, it was better than not knowing anything. So I’m super irritated that my first appointment with the surgeon isn’t for two whole weeks. Not because I think that the cancer will eat its way through me in that amount of time — because I know it won’t — but rather, I will spend this whole time trying to piece together what the plan is likely to be but I don’t have all the pieces of the puzzle. It is a fundamentally fruitless endeavor. Also, while I do have an MD, I am neither a breast surgeon nor an oncologist and have no formal training in either specialty. Thankfully I have been quite schooled on how to search for appropriate and reliable information and sites like do not make the cut. At the very least, I can curate a Pinterest board of badass tattoos to go on my chest-sans-cancer when the time comes, and spitball ideas for a head-shaving party if needed.