This past wednesday when the doctor told me that the lump I found in the shower two days before was stage 2 breast cancer, I felt my life split into two: a before and after. Before I chose to swim difficult challenges because they’re kinda fun. This is a challenge I didn’t choose, will be the opposite of fun, and “it will be the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”
“The hardest thing you’ve ever done”– those words were what came out of the surgeons mouth as he looked me squarely in the eye. He said the cancer had spread to my lymph nodes and I’d need surgery (!) and chemotherapy- (!!!!) Wait, what? How did that word elbow its way into the room? Baldness? I couldn’t process the information tumbling out of his mouth. Even so, I knew was sitting in the chair of naiveté.
How the brain absorbs information is bizarre. My friend and rock, Amanda Stephens, who was there in the room when I got the news, told me later that I blinked blankly at the doctors and kept asking: “Wait, can you say that last sentence one more time?” Then pepper in a few explicatives, tears, and deep breaths. Then again: “Can you repeat that last part?” In hindsight, I’m amazed at the patience and kindness of these doctors.
With all of this comes something else: fear. Fear is what I most want to overcome. My sister calls me a coconut: with a tough exterior that faces man-o-wars and sharks in the deep blue but right underneath is a soft interior filled with fear-milk. I’m a fainter: I pass out whenever I hear about suffering. As my friend Carrington can attest, I fainted cold in Café de Flore in Paris while reading about Steve Job’s passing and the ambulance médicalisée tried to take me away. I fainted upon finding the lump in the shower and knew it shouldn’t be there. I’m super vasovagal- how on earth am I going to deal with this new challenge?
Every time I crack open the door of “Why me?” it takes me to a terrible place so fast that I have to slam it shut. Feeling sorry for myself is negative. What I’m hearing from others is that cancer doesn’t care about anything you’ve done or what your plans might be. It doesn’t care that I moved to San Francisco to make a bigger impact in stomping out illiteracy in the developing world. It doesn’t know that I have a family and, more importantly, 10- and 12-year-old daughters who need their mother. It doesn’t hear my youngest, upon learning the news, sob: “But I am only 10 years old and I can’t be separated from you.” I later found out that our girls thought we were sitting them down to tell them we were getting a puppy.
What I find enormously helpful is support from friends/family all around the globe– and both surprisingly and wonderfully– from the new friends I’ve made in a short time since moving to the Bay Area. I don’t quite have my fighting boots on yet. I know I can’t do this alone. But I am scraping on the surface of something that I always knew was there and am finding a first knee-jerk reaction: Cancer–you’ve messed with the wrong girl.
Ps. Mauricio was supposed to swim the English Channel this weekend and had his bag packed before we got the diagnosis. Of course, he didn’t want to go once we found out this devastating news but I made him-asking him to bring me back a rock once he arrives to France. I *need* him to do that. Follow him here: http://bit.ly/sw4_English_Channel
Pss. After this cancer is kicked in the butt, I need a new swimming challenge. It might involve the waters of Croatia. But, one step at time.
Crossing Cancer (Chapter 1)
Crossing Cancer (Chapter 2)
Crossing Cancer (Chapter 3)
Crossing Cancer (Chapter 4)
Crossing Cancer (Chapter 5)
Crossing Cancer (Chapter 6)
Crossing Cancer (Chapter 7)
Crossing Cancer (Chapter 8)
Crossing Cancer (Chapter 9)