Thursday, May 27, 2010

Welcome to CancerLand

The past six weeks have been a blur. I think they call this the "emotional rollercoaster" of having been diagnosed with breast cancer (or any kind of cancer for that matter).

Difficult breasts. Six weeks ago I went and had a routine mammogram. I usually have mammograms every six to eight months or so because -- no lie -- I have been diagnosed with "difficult" breasts. (My surgeon told me this. We laughed. She didn't think they were really that difficult in person. Just on paper...). This time I had waited a little longer than usual -- about 16 months. But I hadn't felt anything unusual. It was just a routine checkup.

Ultrasound, no biggie. When I got called back for an ultrasound, I wasn't too concerned. This happened frequently after mammograms -- although it always felt like I was tempting the gods somewhat. No one wants to fly that close to the sun...

First, I cried. When the doctor clumsily told me that I needed to have a biopsy, I cried a lot. I was terrified. I had to wait 2-3 days for the results. During that time, I made every bargain I could think of with God. I vacillated between being sure I didn't have it and being sure I was a goner.

Then, I was calm. When I finally got the call, I was actually calm. I launched into project manager mode and started to think about my treatment in a "linear" way. If I could just check off the boxes -- surgery then radiation then "I am well" -- I would be fine. I insisted on using the words "early", "small", "non-differentiated" to describe my diagnosis. That kept me going for quite a while.

I had moments of intermittent terror. But the amazing kindness and outreach of friends and family really helped me -- especially through the first few weeks while I tried to get my treatment plan on track, the decisions made, the surgery scheduled. During that time, the cancer rarely made me cry. But the overwhelming kindness and caring words of friends just broke me up.

A few surprises. When I was first diagnosed, I was at Stage I. After my surgery (I had a lumpectomy) on April 6th, I was diagnosed as Stage II because of the size of the lump (2 cm) and the fact that one lymph node was involved. Originally, I thought I would be a "surgery & radiation" patient and now I find that I will most likely need chemo. Chemo doesn't seem bad at all compared to running out of "stage" numbers (there are only four: I, II, III, IV).

It's not a "check box" kind of thing. I am hoping for no more surprises, although my doctor assures me that this is the course of typical treatment: it's not a check box kind of thing. I realize that now and have realized that the ups and downs and mood swings (from uber strength to abject terror) are all part of the journey.

For my next trick. I never wanted to be here, but feel very, very lucky to be in one of CancerLand's best neighborhoods in terms of prognosis. I have gotten through surgery. For my next trick, I will try to get through chemo without being too awfully terrified. Or maybe, I will allow myself to be terrified -- which is truly terrifying.

It's amazing what scares me. It is so amazing to me the things that become clear on this journey, for example: I am more uncomfortable with asking for help from people than I am of chemo; that I am more worried about losing my hair and looking like a dope than I am about dying. It's like that statistic you hear about people being more afraid of public speaking than dying. I guess it's all about what you can actually imagine happening to you and what you can't.

Getting to know you. Tomorrow, I meet my first meeting with a Radiologist. I probably won't have radiation for several weeks/month but this will be a "baseline" visit. Next week, the real fun begins when I have my first meeting with my Oncologist. Again, I am strangely less afraid of the chemo than I am at the idea of having a "port" (for infusions). But as I say that, I realize (logically, that is) how ridiculous that is. Or maybe, as a good friend suggested, my reactions and emotions are a normal response to an abnormal situation.

A thank you to friends and family. It's difficult to truly say thank you enough to friends, family and colleagues for helping me to stay sane and laughing, during the past few weeks. I am so appreciative of the care, concern and just-plain-friendship that has been extended to me. I know it will help me through this, and it already has helped me and Sam get through this "first part".

What I can give back. The most important thing I hope I can give back to friends, male and female, is to ask them to go get a routine breast cancer screening. Make the time and just do it. Hope there is more I can pay forward as I go through this journey but hope this helps even one person...

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