If my goal in writing about fighting cancer was to be transparent, I’ve done a poor job recently. The truth is that pulling the thoughts out of my head and putting them on paper is getting harder. The last time I wrote, I had just finished my 16th chemo treatment which had landed me in the hospital for a week with no immunity. As they predicted, the same thing happened three more times. I was hospitalised for a week after the next three AC chemos. Each time I had neutropenic fever. Almost zero white and red blood cell counts. Regularly, I got pumped with blood transfusions and round-the-clock IVs. By the last time, it felt almost routine.
Since the hospital is busy with flu season, I repeatedly spent the night in the ER before moving upstairs to a room. I have to say, spending the night in the ER with fever and no immunity is almost unbearable. The ER is built for triage- to assess what’s the matter and move you to the right place to heal. At one point, my oncologist came to check on me. I had been in a tiny ER room for more than 24 hours with IVs stuck in my port and arm, chaining me to the blood-stained gurney. Someone in the room next to me wailed awfully. I looked up at him, in his clean white coat and face mask so I wouldn’t catch any airborne bacteria. Me–hairless, almost 20 pounds lighter than I was 6 months before. I spoke first: “This is my definition of torture, just fyi.” He smiled, I think, his eyes crinkled behind the mask. He waited till the nurses left my cell and gave me a pep talk that I’ll never forget. My oncologist, Dr. Moasser, is outstanding. He’s busy trying to cure cancer but takes the time to tell me to not give up.
I finally got out of the hospital two weeks ago and I’m elated to say that the chemo is done! It’s a relief to witness the chemo-related symptoms dissipate now for good- not just enough to withstand another chemo-whammy a week later. A few days after the last chemo, I had an MRI to see what all that chemo had done to the 3.5cm tumor in the breast and 3cm cancerous area in my armpit. A couple hours later I got an e-mail from Dr. Moasser entitled “MRI Results.” I took a huge breath and opened it. He wrote: “The MRI cannot find any cancer, in the breast or in the axilla. The radiologist was shocked! This is great news! You have done absolutely terrific.” I read his note five times to be sure I hadn’t missed a key word and eventually a hush came over me.
A MRI is an image, but it doesn’t show what’s happening on a microscopic level. And by nature cancer cells are microscopic and I had a lot of them. So it’s amazing news, but I’ll know more about the cancer and its risk of recurrence after surgery and the pending pathology report. Over the last couple of days my thoughts wobble between thinking how relieved I am with the MRI to battling gloomier thoughts. Part of what’s fueling this is noticing just how surprised the doctors were with the positive MRI results. In Dr. Moasser’s note, I ask myself: Wait, why was the radiologist shocked? What was she expecting? I’ll start reading online and come across horror stories around triple negative and spiral downwards. The same thing happens when thinking about what’s next– while talking to doctors about surgery and radiation, they say things like: “The cancer responded incredibly well to chemo, but given how aggressive the cancer initially was, we recommend the Leaving No Stone Unturned Approach.” This means the most surgery (double mastectomy and axilla dissection) and the most radiation (every day for 5 weeks). My brain is in a ping-pong match: good news to bad news, again and again. In fact, I realize from the very beginning I had no idea what I was up against. I can’t even remember what I thought I was up against 6 months ago when I first learned I had cancer.
And here’s what I really don’t want to write about, because I wish it would just go away. I am terrified of surgery and it’s just 9 days from now. And each day I wake up, it’s one day less. And what’s odd is that surgery and radiation aren’t supposed to be anywhere near as hard as the amount of chemo I just withstood. Somehow being a swimmer gave me tools to approach the slog of getting my butt kicked by chemo time and again. But surgery? It feels like I’m hopping into a shark tank. Or there’s a rattlesnake in the middle of the road and I’m willingly stepping on it, knowing I’ll lose a body part. I know there’s no choice in the matter- I will do whatever it takes to beat this cancer. But please, I’d like to turn my brain off.
Some folks have asked me about what to say (or not to say) to people dealing with cancer. It’s a great question- one which I’m sure I’ve messed up with in the past. My feeling on a high-level is that you can say anything you want– it’s great just to know you’re pulling for me during this difficult time. And my bet is that something that might bug one person would slide off the back of another, especially since each case of cancer is as unique as the personalities of those fighting it. But now, I’ve officially got my least fave. Upon hearing about my upcoming surgery, someone remarked: “Well, it’s a good thing you were never attached to your boobs.” I blinked, unable to articulate the mourning I’m feeling. I’m not especially in love with my arm, but I don’t want to lose it! I’ve never thought about this until now, but I wonder: why do people think it’s commonplace that women wish for different breasts? I’ve always been happy with my body, sort of blasé about it. Now I wish I’d celebrated my small breasts with every iota during their 43 years– they nourished both my daughters for goodness sake!
Here’s some photos from the past few weeks. And love love love this video!
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)