Sept. 22, 2014
I came to a harsh realization today.
Aggressive, invasive, triple-negative non-hormone driven stage 3 breast cancer.
Yeah sure, I know it was February of last year that I found the lump. And I’m aware that the multiple biopsy results came on Noah’s 13th birthday in March of last year. On April 10, 2013 my body was altered forever when a surgeon removed both of my breasts, all the way to the chest wall. Chemo took my hair shortly thereafter, and by the end made it difficult to walk, even with a cane. Radiation burned my skin, forever making that area slow to heal. Scars were left, after several surgeries, from mid-sternum to underarm, on both sides.
Through all of that, I tried to stay positive. I tried to keep smiling. I tried to keep going and not think about anything but getting through the treatments and get it over with. And I did it! My PET scan was clear, showing no signs of cancer in November 2013. Radiation ended February 19, 2014 – ending all treatments, and that was it. I was done! And every day since it ended, I woke up with an exquisite realization – I BEAT Cancer!
Time passed, strength returned, health returned. I started working out again! I started eating better again! I started losing the 27 pounds that I gained during treatments! Then, despite having said from the very beginning that I would have no part of reconstruction, I entertained the option for two reasons: I did not like what I saw in the mirror, and some of my clothes were not fitting right. Small implants should do the trick, I thought, to fill in the caved-in areas of my chest, fill my swimsuit, yet still omit the need for a bra. Sounded like a win-win to me!
I had my surgery on July 24th. Within a week or two I felt great, and back to normal – despite the fact that you couldn’t even tell that I had gotten implants. Five weeks after surgery, my skin split open on the radiated side, and turned into an infection that wouldn’t respond to antibiotics. So last week, on September 18th, I was back in surgery to un-do all that had been done in July, remove the implant, and get rid of all of the infection.
Yesterday, I removed the bandages for the first time so that I could shower. It was like someone had punched me in the gut. It took my breath away. The damage was worse now than way back after the double mastectomy last year. I obviously was NOT prepared for what I saw, and I stood for what seemed like forever, mouth agape, staring at even worse caved-in scars than existed before. There are no words, but the sense of loss overwhelmed me at that moment – and I believe that it was then that the mourning began.
Today, I can’t stop crying. I have no way to explain it, except for an overwhelming sense of grief. It isn’t about not being grateful that I beat cancer. It isn’t about not being thankful that the staph infection didn’t get into my bloodstream and kill me. I mean, truly, I hated my large breasts before cancer; but I never hated them enough to disfigure myself. But it is a very odd place to be where I don’t look like a woman when topless; nor do I look like a guy when topless. I feel like some androgynous person who gets called sir in the check-out line, and then called ma’am when they hear my voice. I know that there is the option, after a while, to start over with something else that can be made from my own tissue, but that doesn’t take away from what I have to see today, and every day until maybe it can be repaired. But truthfully, the more I see these scars, the less hope that I have for a repair that will look remotely like a breast.
I don’t know how to mourn. I don’t know how to grieve a major loss and then let it go. I know how to shove down feelings, sometimes to the point of omitting them from my memories. I know how to stifle tears that start to choke me, for fear that if I let them go, they won’t stop and will overtake me. When death has touched my family on rare occasions, I will usually cry at the intital news but then keep it together from that point forward. I did fall apart after the loss of a baby and again when my oldest moved out, and that was enough for me. To me, it doesn’t seem to be productive to fall apart, when I would much rather just face things, deal with it, and keep smiling and cracking jokes in order to cope. So for whatever reason, now, all of these months and months and surgery scars later, my psyche has decided that THIS surgery was the one. The straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back. Floodgates are being pressed hard by weird, foreign, emotion-type things like the levees in New Orleans during hurricane season.
No matter how much I downplay it, no matter how much I laugh it off – body parts are gone forever. No matter how many more procedures it takes to rebuild some semblance of a chest – they will never be the real thing or look like the real thing. I know that my physical appearance doesn’t define me, and never has – so why in the holy f&*k is this driving me mad NOW??? I just don’t get it. And this whole piece is NOT for advice on how to deal with things, or for great words of wisdom, or for anyone to tell me to “buck up, Buttercup” – because I’m telling myself that one plenty, thank you very much. This piece was just how I know how to process things, and that is through writing. I only share in hopes that if there is one person out there who goes through something remotely similar, that they will know that they are not alone, and that they can, should, and will go through a mourning of their own.
But, I came to a harsh realization today.
I had Cancer.