50th Birthday Surprise: The Ongoing Gift of a Renewed Life
Being told you have cancer is surreal. Of course no one ever expects to hear those words, and when it happens, there is no way you can predict how you’ll handle it. I had just returned from a beautiful beach vacation with my family, where they’d surprised me with a 50th birthday party, and I was at a life high, very very happy. Nine days after that milestone birthday, I had a scheduled mammogram. After I had gotten dressed, the tech returned and apologetically said she needed a few more images. I didn’t clue in that anything might be amiss, and I remember thinking she was apologizing because she must feel bad that she didn’t get good images in the first place. The second round of images took longer than the first. And then, I was asked to wait to talk to the radiologist. THAT’S when I knew something wasn’t quite right. I’d had mammograms before, and I’d never been asked to stick around, I’d just leave and within a few days a skinny little envelope would appear in the mail with a letter saying all was well.
But on this day, all was not well. The radiologist said she was concerned about what she saw and recommended a biopsy. I don’t know about you, but for me the word biopsy carries a heaviness, a fear, and a sobering reality, and that day the word made my stomach turn to know that the word was applied to me. I drove home in a daze. Suddenly my happy world had been overtaken by a cold cloud.
The biopsy was scheduled for a date nearly 3 weeks out. Those 3 weeks I carried on as if everything was completely normal, but inside it was all I could think about. The fear of the unknown, I guess. It was an awful secret to have, telling only my husband. Two days after the biopsy, it was a Wednesday and I was home alone when the radiologist called to tell me what I’d been dreading hearing. At the time, I understood “cancer” but the rest of it was gobbledygook. “DCIS with microinvasion” sounded scary but I was assured it was very treatable. And I was strangely calm and detached, taking notes of what I was supposed to do next, as if I was being told where to pick up the dry cleaning. I simply went into action, and skipped RE-action. Oh, but not so fast.
I kept it together that day, and the next day, and the next day. I didn’t have time to fall apart. I had to go to work, I had to drive my kids, I had to do this, I had to do that. By Saturday though, work was no longer an obstacle, and both my kids were with their Dad for the weekend. I stayed in bed and cried for 2 solid days.
After that, it was a whirlwind of testing, second opinions, choosing a care team, and telling my family. My initial treatment plan was lumpectomy and radiation to the right breast. Except the lumpectomy had to be repeated because there were unclear margins after the first. The 2nd lumpectomy’s pathology report ALSO came back citing unclear margins. The option of doing yet a 3rd lumpectomy was not realistic, and by then the analysis of the cells indicated that chemotherapy was going to be needed. The whole treatment plan then changed from lumpectomy and radiation to mastectomy and chemo.
My head was spinning. I had gotten myself mentally ready for 6 weeks of radiation, planning to continue working all the while. But this was a completely different animal. I had to prepare for feeling sick, looking sick, and being sick. And being bald.
I began chemotherapy on January 4th, 2017 and was infused with the nasty elixir (taxol) once a week for 12 weeks. It was hard. I became devastatingly fatigued and anemic, in addition to losing all my hair. I experienced sores in my mouth, daily congestion and bloody nose, neuropathy in my fingers and toes, stomachaches, and the sudden and brutal slam into forced menopause. I felt like a swollen puff ball all the time and couldn’t stand to be in my own skin. I was restless but had no energy. It was a dark winter season. Chemo finished and I continued every 3 weeks for the next 9 months with a targeted therapy (Herceptin, no side effects, yay!).
The next big hurdle was the mastectomy. I had about 6 weeks to recover from taxol before my surgery. I was lucky to be a candidate for DIEP Flap Reconstruction, and it was all done on the same day, May 17, 2017. Very very physically challenging recovery from that! I was in the hospital for 5 days, tethered by drains, temperature probe monitoring the blood supply to the new breast, a pain pump tube inserted into my abdomen, and catheter. Going home with 3 drains is not for the faint of heart – but after everything else, it was just “one more thing” to deal with, and when seen from the perspective of gratefulness to be cancer free, and to have had such great care, it was nothing in hindsight. I had to wear an abdominal binder 24/7 for the next 12 weeks, and needed lots of help with basic things like walking, getting up from a chair, getting in/out of bed, for the first 4. I didn’t drive for almost 8 weeks.
Physical Therapy began at the 6 week mark, and I was so glad to go! Post-op restrictions kept me from raising my arm above my chest for all that time, while the tissues and vessels healed, and my shoulder and chest muscles were painfully tight. The therapy helped immensely. (And I’m not just saying that because I’m a PT!)
During my physical recovery from breast cancer treatment, I was very focused on the body healing. What I didn’t know then that I know now, is that healing from cancer is much more than a physical endeavor. There is a massive mind piece that must be worked through. I recognize that now. Just like with my delayed reaction to learning I had cancer, I had a delayed reaction to the mental side of the healing that I’d need. I’m doing that now, by helping others through my volunteer work at a major cancer center in Boston, and with my work as a Certified Health Coach with women during or after their journey. But maybe delayed isn’t the right word – everyone heals in their own way on their own time. I was unaware of all the resources that were out there to help with the emotional healing when I was deep in the thick of the physical recovery. The beautiful thing about the cancer club though, is that everyone accepts one another where they are 🙂