It was three days before Christmas 2012 and I was busy at my job at the local bookstore. I stepped into the storeroom to take the call from my doctor, convinced it would be nothing. When she started with, “I’m so sorry to tell you this over the phone,” she didn’t have to say the word “cancer,” but she did. My first reaction was “Wow, I’ve won the lottery.” I had been completely convinced that the lump was benign. I could not have cancer. I was healthy. I have always been the caregiver. This wasn’t supposed to happen to me.
During my childhood, it was my brother who was sick. I remember being jealous of the attention he received, his stays at the Seattle Children’s hospital seemed like vacations to me. There were presents, clowns (the Shriners) and seemingly endless Popsicles. Meanwhile, I was shuffled between various babysitters and served countless TV dinners.
Then my grandfather became ill when I was in high school—my escape hatch—my mentor—my rock. Brain cancer consumed our family for two years, taking its toll on all of us in different ways as we helplessly watched our grand patriarch crumble.
Two short years later, I was in college, when his wife, the fountain of laughter and all things fun, went to the hospital at my urging for a simple bladder operation and died two weeks later from complications of cervical cancer.
Maybe I should have been concerned that cancer was prevalent in my family, but I never was. I was healthy. A vegetarian since I was 15, I was fond of organic foods long before they were cool (or easy to find). I was a runner and I practiced yoga. I even meditated.
So, I hung up the phone and went back to work. As I was driving home, my husband called to berate me for something I hadn’t done. I broke into tears as I said, “But I have cancer.” Only diagnosed for a few short hours and already I was using the cancer card. Then I announced, that we weren’t telling the kids, or anyone until after Christmas. For the next two weeks, we barely mentioned it.
I still wasn’t concerned nearly six weeks later, as I met with my breast surgeon, Dr. Elisa Port, Associate Professor of Surgery at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York. I had asked her whether she thought I should remove the breast without the tumor, prophylactically. Her response finally caught my attention. She was opposed to the idea because, she said, “It will only distract us from focusing on saving your life.” I honestly hadn’t even considered that the cancer could kill me. Luckily, I was now in the care of one of the most respected breast surgeons in the world. I remember worrying that she wouldn’t take me as a patient because my cancer was so simple.
She scheduled me for surgery the next week, where she removed my one breast with two tumors and removed 24 lymph nodes. Because the cancer was in my lymph nodes, my next ordeal was chemotherapy.
Nearly at my two-year anniversary, I still have some reconstructive surgery to complete, but my hair has grown in, I’m taking Tamoxifen, and I’m feeling fairly healthy. However, I haven’t yet embraced the “survivor” label and I’m not sure I ever will. I still feel vulnerable and lack my pre-cancer feeling of confidence in my health. I don’t feel that I’m in complete control because I don’t know why I got breast cancer, I don’t know why my grandmother got cervical cancer, or why my grandfather got brain cancer, or why my Dad got bladder cancer. And so I am not sure that I will ever feel that I have reached finality with cancer. We have much to learn about this disease.
However, I am a survivor in other ways. I survived the countless doctor visits. I survived having my right breast removed. I survived chemo. I even survived having all my hair fall out and seeing the look of horrified embarrassment on my daughter’s face when my scarf fell off at the beach. I survived the failure of my marriage. And I am surviving, even thriving, in raising three beautiful children. Life in all its glory does go on, cancer or no.